“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
― Martin Keogh, Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World
Yesterday at our farm we marked the end of an era.
When we bought this place there was an old overgrown orchard on the hill up behind the house. When we’d asked the previous owner what kind of trees they were he’d been offhand. Oranges, he said. Just old oranges. They cropped every year, he told us, and he let the fruit bats get most of them. How many oranges can you eat, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
We’re an organic farm. We don’t use chemicals. So by hand and by machine we cleared out all the privet and camphor, the lantana and other weeds, and were left with a host of ancient citrus trees. They were huge, some of them spindly and weak, and all of them in various stages of declining health after decades of neglect.
That first winter we were amazed. The trees fruited and we harvested a range of different oranges, blood oranges, tangerines, several kinds of mandarin (clementine), grapefruits and lemons. Most of the varieties were so old that they were not able to be readily identified by the commercial horticulturalist at the nursery up the road.
We pruned and fed and watered, and waited to see what might happen. Some of the elderly ladies at my CWA group remembered the orchard from their childhoods, when it had been a flourishing commercial affair that supplemented the dairy which used to be our farm. The orchard had been planted in the nineteen-thirties, and had remained in commercial operation until the late sixties.
It was exciting to think that the trees might still be viable. We hoped that we might be able to include them as part of our own organic farm produce plan. In Barcelona we’d seen trees that were well over one hundred and fifty years old and still in full production.
So we tried.
For five years.
And then yesterday we brought the excavator in and pulled almost all of them out.
Why? The trees are disease-free, but most of them aren’t thriving. A few trees stand out, and produce bountiful, healthy fruit. But six out of sixty? Something wasn’t adding up. Some of our neighbours have had similar issues with their own tree crops so a few of us sent some samples off for testing to find out why our plants aren’t doing what they should, given the treatment we’ve been lavishing upon them.
It turns out our poor old citrus trees have suffered major damage from UV. The UV (ultra violet) radiation levels in Australia have increased dramatically in recent years, and the world is a much warmer place than when these trees were first planted. The winters in our region have become shorter, and less cold. Overall our seasons are more erratic. Effectively our environment is no longer conducive to the ongoing health of the fruit trees. The six old trees that are thriving? They all receive shade for a good portion of the day.
Global warming is something we can’t ignore. It’s happening right here, right now. It’s the talk of our neighbourhood, and of farming communities everywhere.
So, what are we going to do? Our farm still has good soil, and reliable water. For now, anyway. We’ve decided to plant rows of lilly pilly (a bush tucker food with tart-sweet berries) for shade and wind breaks, and within the protection of those rows we’ll plant a variety of native bush-foods, and heritage (old varieties!) orchard trees which are more heat, drought and sun tolerant. That way we can protect bio-diversity and stay true to our personal philosophy of farming and living gently on the earth.
Our farm already produces plenty of bunya nuts – another fine bush tucker food. At first we’d harvested them for our own use, but now we sell the nuts to local restaurants and to a bush foods co-op which distribute them throughout Australia and overseas. A mix of Australian natives and conventional food crops for our farm seems a grand idea.
We need to be adaptive to our changing environment, rather than continuing to struggle with old ways that no longer work with these new conditions.
I felt sad to watch the demise of the old citrus trees, but there is no use trying to persevere with something that can’t adapt and thrive. Better to pull them out and plant food trees that are better suited to our changed conditions. Better for us as farmers to be thinking about this warming planet, and what we can do to sustain food availability and quality.
It’s a good lesson for life too, don’t you think?
If you’ve tried, and tried, and something’s just not working, maybe it’s time to walk away and begin something new with a better chance of success.