Autumn:It conjures colours in my mind. Deep reds, brilliant oranges and bright yellow; vivid hillsides or fiery avenues; these are the scenes that await in the South Island during March, April and May. Time to bring out the camera or the paint brushes. How to capture so much splendour?
Fall — the American name — brings a later time to mind. Leaves gently floating, one following the other. Or a windy night, followed by a red-gold and brown crunchy carpet — all the leaves downed at once. This is playtime: children shouting, laughing, scuffing through the leaves and building great heaps to leap into and to toss in the air.
Autumn Down Under
In the Southern Hemisphere everything seems topsy-turvey to those from northern parts. When we have winter — you have summer; we’re in daylight — you’re in night. Ideally, Our houses face north, if they can, because southerly weather in New Zealand comes from Antarctica and it’s COLD.
You might think that being such a small country our climate would be the same throughout, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Living here in Garston we are closer to the South Pole than to the equator, and the weather is quite different to that of New Zealand’s northerly provinces. So are the seasons.
New Zealand native trees are mostly evergreen so their colour comes from beautiful flowers and berries. But our English pioneers missed the trees of home and planted many, many deciduous trees, especially in the South Island where they’ve flourished.
A Stunning Season
So autumn is a beautiful season down here. The awareness that cold weather is on its way causes the deciduous trees to withdraw the green chlorophyll from the leaves back into the branches and trunk where it will wait out the winter, ready to be used come spring. Now it’s time for other pigments in the leaves to shine, and what a glorious show they make.
My Class Loves Painting in Autumn
I’m not a great artist myself, but I love teaching art to my class of 5 – 7 year olds at Garston School. We love the autumn colours around our school. Last week we learned one way of showing reflections with autumn colours.
The grain is ripe, gleaming gold in the sunlight. Paddocks ripple when a breeze rustles through the tall stems. We’ve been so thankful for our wet fortnight but now we pray the rain will stop. We need dry, windy weather to harvest the grain. Anticipation has been building for days. The combine harvester has been checked and cleaned and the transport truck is on standby. Once the moisture content of the barley kernels drops we’ll be good to go.
A Vital Crop.
Undoubtedly the most important crop to harvest on the farm is the grain. The barley and oats are vital winter feed for our animals.
In the winter it’s too cold for the grass to grow so we feed the sheep grain, hay and baleage (individually wrapped bales of fermented grass). Every spring we sow many acres of seed, and each autumn we harvest the grain to fill our silos and sell to local farmers.
Garston doesn’t have endless crop-filled plains like the US or Australia. In those countries, huge combines chug along day and night in a straight line, their drivers almost on autopilot. But our paddocks are small, bounded by wire fences and filled with bumps and hollows. The driver must be alert at all times. He has to watch out for dips or rises in the ground, not to mention the occasional rock. He must always keep the combine even and has to constantly make small adjustments. One of my many brothers-in-law is the driver. He likes to begin harvesting on the outside of the paddock and moves in ever-decreasing circuits until the last one is done in the middle.
Will the Combine Last the Distance?
Finally a nor’wester springs to life. In Garston, this is a hot, dry wind. During the summer drought, it sucked every bit of moisture out of the ground and we shook our fists at it; but now we’re smiling, because it will dry out the grain. (We can’t harvest wet grain because it will spoil in the silos.) So now we have but one, fervent wish: that the old combine will not break down.
Twenty years ago, she was a sparkling, brand new Massey Ferguson Harvester. Not the biggest, but perfect for our needs. I still remember the day she drove up, gleaming red and ready for action. Lenny, the proud salesman, followed hard on her heels; delighted to show her off and bask in our excitement. His Scottish accent broadened till we could hardly understand him, as he explained all her wonderful features. We christened her with cups of coffee and cake. Then she rumbled into the paddock and our first-ever trouble-free harvest began.
The MF replaced an ancient harvester which constantly broke down every season. No wonder we were so delighted with our new machine. In her first few years, harvesting happened without a hitch. But those days are long gone. Now the old girl is showing her age — as are the farmers. But we can’t afford to replace her, so we start the season, once again, with our fingers crossed.
What Exactly is a Combine Harvester?
A combine harvester combines the actions of cutting, threshing and winnowing the grain— which used to be done with separate implements — into one machine. It’s a complicated beast: full of cutters, wheels, cogs, chains and belts. There’s lots of potential for things to go wrong.
The front has a long blade which cuts the stalks close to the ground. A reel goes round and brings the grain-filled stalks to an augur which then drags it up into the machine. An auger is a metal tube with a giant screw inside. The screw turns and the spirals take the grain up the auger.
Inside it goes into a drum which knocks the grain kernels out. They fall through sieves, and onto an elevator which drops them into a big tank.
The straw, dust, and chaff (husks and smaller grains) then pass over a series of riddles which catch any further grain and send it to the elevator. The rest is blown out the back, to lie in neat rows. It’s a noisy, complicated, fascinating process.
So off we go on the harvest treadmill. Round goes the combine with the transporter truck waiting patiently in a corner of the paddock. When the combine’s tank is full of grain, an orange signal light begins to blink and the truck driver knows to drive alongside. A small auger winds out from the side and all the grain is pumped out into the truck’s enormous bin. This will happen over and over again until the bin is full. Then the truck will head to the silo where it will tip the grain into another auger, which will take it to a hole in the top of the silo. Down it pours, into the dark depths, and the truck trundles back to the paddock ready to receive the next load.
A few rows behind the combine, my nephew is driving his tractor and baler. He’s gathering the straw into big, round bales, which he will sell to a local dairy farmer who winters his cows inside big barns. The straw will make excellent bedding for the cows.
Round And Round We Go.
This cycle goes on and on, broken every now and then by my arrival with a meal. Morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner… even supper if the wind is still blowing and they are harvesting after dark. It’s a much-needed break for the drivers and they stretch their legs gratefully as they chat over coffee and food. But all too soon it’s back to the machines and the harvest grinds on.
And the combine breaks down. Again! This time it’s a tiny, innocuous button on the joystick that raises and lowers the front. Oh, so small — it’s been under the driver’s thumb every harvest toggling east, west, north, south, making small adjustments. I didn’t even know it existed until it broke, but apparently, it’s essential. And it’s difficult to replace — not to mention expensive!
Farmers are resourceful people — the men repair the button with Blu Tack and Superglue, and carry on. The repair lasts for a few hours, but that blasted button continues to break down. They call in the local engineer… the mechanic… the whizz-kid from down the road… each one makes a temporary repair — and the grain harvest continues until…
The last grain topples into the silo. The engines switch off and peace descends over the farm. Harvest is done for another year. We’d celebrate — if we weren’t all so exhausted. The combine drives back into her shed. Now we’ve got a year to source and repair that pesky button before we start the process all over again next autumn.
Did you enjoy reading about the grain harvest? If so, you’ll probably like the other posts in this series:
You wake up feeling sluggish. You didn’t sleep well — again! In the shower you make a promise: “Today I’ll start my diet. Today I’m going to be healthy. No sugar — no snacks. I can do this!” You step out of the shower completely resolved. Today’s the first day of the rest of your life.
You eat breakfast — feeling good so far. You skip the biscuits at morning tea — now feeling virtuous. Lunch is a big, healthy salad — great.
By 3pm your energy is beginning to flag. 4 o’clock drags around and those biscuits are calling. You turn your back, grit your teeth and carry on.
By tea time you’re ravenous. You load up your plate: healthy but huge. Somehow it’s not enough. All that food and your mind says more, more. I want pudding. You give in. Out comes the ice cream or the cake. You’ve blown it again. “Tomorrow,” you vow. “I’ll try again tomorrow… or maybe next week.”
Sound familiar? This was my life for YEARS. Every day I blew it. Frustration, failure, misery — I knew them all intimately.
Then one day everything changed!
Help Is At Hand.
18 months ago I found a programme that seriously kicked butt. It’s called the Blitz. Run by “superwoman” Tania Campbell of Fitness For Life in Queenstown, the Blitz has changed my life. Not a diet, but a healthy eating programme, the Blitz is guaranteed to help me lose weight AND, more importantly, change my eating habits.
The Blitz gives you six weeks of meal menus, shopping lists and recipes, plus coaching, encouragement and accountability. You have to report your progress to Tania each week, and that’s a huge motivation right there. It costs: that’s part of the motivation too. After all, you’ve forked out good money for this programme. If you cheat it’s all been wasted.
Exercise is part of the deal, of course. It’s a simple formula really: eat healthy food and exercise regularly. I go to fitness classes and yoga, and of course I love to walk.
I seriously loved doing that first Blitz, and carried it on for 9 weeks. By the end I’d lost 12kg and felt wonderful. So much energy… so much more joy in life. Some of the recipes I loved and still use regularly, others I dropped thankfully. In the next few months I looked online for healthy recipes and wasn’t afraid to experiment and try new tastes. I knew I had to keep on with healthy eating if I wanted to keep the weight off and the energy up.
This week I started another Blitz. Old habits have crept back into my life: bread, ice cream, chips… ahh. It’s time for a reset.
I’m extra excited because this time my sisters are joining me in the challenge. They don’t live in Queenstown; they’re doing the online version. It’s great to have that extra support and to be a support for them in return.
All the stars aligned last weekend and suddenly our hop harvest was underway. The flowers weren’t supposed to be ready for another ten days, but the weather gods smiled and the hops ripened fast.
Fortunately, it was Easter and so plenty of people had a day to spare. My plans for a quiet holiday flew out the window. We had to get the hops picked pronto, so the call went out — HELP!
Thank goodness, our family and friends rallied round.
A Trial Crop
Hops are an interesting crop — and an experimental one for our farm. You see, according to some experts, hops shouldn’t thrive this far south in New Zealand. It’s too cold; too windy; too far down at the bottom of the world. But the experts hadn’t seen the vine Cousin Matt had been quietly nurturing in a sheltered corner of his garden down the road. We knew that one hop plant would grow, but could they grow on a larger scale? We decided to find out.
It didn’t take us long to identify the perfect hop-growing-spot on our farm. We call it the “Tree Surrounded Paddock.” It’s sheltered from the wind in every direction and flat as a pancake. Add in some beautiful soil and you’ve got a southern paradise for hops. And, two years down the track, the hops seem to agree.
Hops seedlings start out small, but in just a few months they shoot up four metres or more. Everyone in the family helped to build the frames needed to support such tall plants.
Hops need plenty of water and fertilizer, so we put in a small automatic watering system. Last year the timer worked perfectly. This year it didn’t. We watered them when we could but the drought sucked every drop out of the farm for months. So the hops had to get by on short rations. Just like the rest of us.
It didn’t seem to bother them much. I mean, just look at all the flowers!
To harvest the flowers we cut the vines at the top and bottom and carted the whole plant to the picking room aka my brother-in-law’s carport.
On a large hop farm with a huge volume of flowers, this is all mechanised but we must pick and sort every flower by hand. With our wonderful friends and family, we set to work. Eddie and Eliot from Altitude Brewing brought some friends along to help.
Somehow, we got the whole crop done in two days. It’s not hard work, but plucking flower after flower after flower gets rather boring. Unless you’ve got “Me And Bobby McGee,” and “The Gambler” on your iPod. Fortunately, we had all the classics to get us through: music, conversation and lots of food.
Hops are one of beer’s four essential ingredients. When the flowers are ripe they develop a distinctive yellow resin. And that’s what flavours the beer. There are many different varieties and they all offer different tastes. Craft brewers spend ages blending hops to create their own unique recipes.
Mostly, the flowers are dried and made into pellets which are easy to store. But our hops are heading straight to Queenstown’s Altitude Brewing. Eliot’s planning a special Garston green-hop brew.
This means time is of the essence because the flowers have to be fresh. There is a very short window of opportunity when making this sort of beer.
In New Zealand, and indeed worldwide, there is a burgeoning interest in craft beer. Homebrewing is on the rise and microbreweries are springing up in all sorts of interesting places.
Nowadays, people are more and more interested in beer as a drink to savour and appreciate. I think it’s all part of the slow living, back to our roots movement that’s happening all over the world.
We’re aiming to support our local micro-breweries. Wouldn’t it be great to give them naturally produced, locally grown hops. Minimal food miles and maximum goodness, that’s the plan. Sounds perfect to me.
I love my newsletter subscribers. Most bloggers do.
These are the folks who love your blog and want to connect with you. They trust you to send useful emails and newsletters they really want to read.
Blogging can be hard. Even though you love writing, you’ve no idea who’s out there reading your words. It’s like chasing shadows.
But when people sign up for your newsletter, suddenly they become real. Now, you’re no longer writing to a faceless crowd. Your people have names and you write your words to them. It gives a whole new impetus and meaning to your blog.
That’s why I love my list.
There are all sorts of rules around internet security and privacy these days. Governments are beginning to wake up to the issue of invasion of privacy and they are taking it very, very seriously.
It doesn’t even matter if you don’t live in Europe. If your readers live there, you have to abide by the GDPR rules. (Sadly, I will have to have one of those cookie pop-ups sooner or later.)
Anyway, it’s only a matter of time before similar laws arrive in New Zealand. This is absolutely right and proper. I personally would not want to do anything to jeopardize your privacy.
BUT FOLKS, NOW I HAVE A BIG PROBLEM. Because of GDPR laws I must have a double opt-in on my newsletter.
This means you need to CONFIRM that you want to hear from me again in the CONFIRMATION EMAIL that pops straight into your inbox.
Right now, I have people sitting in my list who have replied to my newsletter subscription popup… BUT THEY HAVEN’T CLICKED THAT CONFIRMATION EMAIL.
Maybe they changed their minds, and that’s okay. That’s partly what the confirmation is designed for. To allow a change of heart. But, it’s also designed to confirm that you positively want to hear from me again.
Maybe those readers just forgot? Or put it in the “I must do that” basket?
Or perhaps they just didn’t see the email. It might have gone into their junk mail. 😢I DON’T KNOW.
And, sadly, I am legally not allowed to contact them. If you don’t confirm your subscription, you won’t hear from me again.
So please, please, remember to confirm your subscription if you want to join a newsletter or any other group which has a double opt-in.
Please don’t think I ignored you. Please don’t think I didn’t want to hear from you.
While my farming men are busy bringing in the grain, my own focus is on the bounty given to me by nature and the foresight of our pioneer ancestors.
This week the pears are ready to pick and preserve.
Bounty from the past.
When pioneering families settled their farms here in Garston 120 years ago, the land was devoid of trees. Grass, tussock and rocks were the main features of the narrow, river valley they would come to call home. Mountains lining both sides of the valley kept it freezing in winter and scorching in summer. Food was scarce and largely home-grown. The top priority was establishing a large vegetable garden beside a small, rough farmhouse. And next on the list was always planting the orchard.
For many years orchards, both small and large, were lovingly tended up and down the valley, but with the advent of sealed roads, speedy cars and modern supermarkets, the orchards have become overgrown and neglected in modern times. All the same, the sturdiest trees persist and each autumn they dot the valley with fragrant fruit for us to pick and be thankful for.
Harvest in the present.
So it is, that this week I’m harvesting the pears. It’s not as easy as you might think.
Sometimes the season is poor and there is scarcely a fruit to be seen, but this year there’s an abundance of pears on every tree. There are also birds, who can savour the best fruit on the highest branches which are impossible for me to reach. Not content with their share, however, they like to invade my territory on the branches below as well. They don’t eat the whole fruit: oh no! They would rather sample, leave a small hole, and move on to try the pear next door as well.
And then, we have the wind. Autumn can be a windy season around here, and this year is no exception. Many of the pears end up on the ground before they are ripe. These windfalls are often the ones I collect. They are easy to reach, and being still quite firm, have not taken any harm from their fall. However, danger lurks below. There’s a wasp nest somewhere around the orchard and the wasps begin feasting long before I arrive. They go for the half-rotten fruit, preferably already holed by the birds. So I tread very carefully under the trees, and restrict my haul to the unripe pears, preferably well away from the busy wasps.
The windfall pears are poles apart from Emerson’s perfect 10 minutes, and unfortunately, they are most unlikely to reach that happy state. For years, no matter how carefully I stored them or what ripening tricks I tried, many pears ended up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat.
But I’m ever hopeful and this year I’m trying a new trick. I read some helpful pear hints in “This NZ Life” and they shed some light on my past pear problems.
Apparently, pears ripen from the inside out, so that even if a pear feels rock hard on the outside it may well be ripening on the inside. So the best thing to do is to chill the pears as soon as you pick them, then bring out a few to finish ripening as you need them.
Pears are a-cooking for the future.
Fortunately, if these new ripening ideas still don’t work, cooking will save the day. Poaching the pears in a sweet and delicious liquid will add flavour and soften the unripe fruit. I don’t have the time, skills (or quite frankly the inclination) to spend hours this week preserving multiple jars of fruit. I’ve tried it before and failed miserably every time. So now I pick a little every day, and while the evening meal is cooking it’s often joined by a pot of pears bubbling gently on the stove. To preserve them, I’ll simply portion the cold pears into containers with the syrup and freeze.
Soft pears are cooked in a matter of minutes. I don’t trust these to the cooktop: they go into the microwave, with a little maple syrup, a knob of butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence and lemon juice for just a few minutes. They form their own delicious juice and taste exquisite. I’ve just finished cooking up the latest batch that did manage to ripen successfully. I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.
But most pears will not be so ripe, so here’s how I’ll treat the main crop of windfall pears.
Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears
8-12 firm pears4-5 tbsp brown sugar or coconut sugar
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon1 lemon
WaterRaisins or sultanas (optional)
What to do:
Cut the pears into quarters, discarding core and stem. There is no need to peel.
Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
Finely grate the lemon rind.
Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
Add these to the pot.
Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
Cover and bring to the boil.
Simmer gently until the pears are soft but not falling apart. This could take 20 – 30 minutes, or even longer depending on the size of the pieces and the temperature of the cooking liquid. Slow is best.
Once cooked, add a handful of raisins or sultanas if desired. Leave everything to cool in the pot. The pears will increase in sweetness and the dried fruit will plump up and add more flavour.
I love these pears with maple-walnut ice cream. The walnut flavour goes so well with pears, but really any ice cream would be nice. Sometimes I add an extra topping of chopped, toasted walnuts. Cover the pears and ice cream with spoonfuls of the hot cooking syrup.
To download this recipe as a PDF click the link below.
There’s something deeply satisfying about eating food you’ve gathered and cooked yourself. It hearkens back to our hunter-gatherer roots perhaps? Or maybe nostalgically to what we think of as a simpler time.
Your Turn To Talk
Are you a forager who enjoys finding food in the wild?
Or are you, like me, lucky enough to have an orchard nearby, or random trees growing in the backyard?
Maybe you have hints or recipes to share.
Let’s start a fruitful conversation in the comments.