Autumn or Fall

Yellow leaves frame a boat marina at Lake Te Anau.

A Breathtaking Season By Any Name

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.

Here are 3 of my favourites:

Another post in the series Autumn Harvest on the Farm.

 

 

 

 

The Old Apple Tree

 

An ancient apple tree, grows alone in a farm gully.
She nestles in a gully, far from prying eyes.

On our farm there is a very special apple tree. She grows quietly; standing by herself in a little gully, far from prying eyes. No one knows how she got there, miles from the houses and farm sheds. The creek is dry now, but it wasn’t always so. Maybe an apple rolled downstream, thrown by a careless hand. Perhaps a bird deposited an apple seed there. However it happened, the seed sprouted and this ancient tree grew. She is old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.

A Special Apple Tree

But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes her special, for she is a heritage tree. She may very well be unique — the only one of her kind in the world. How special is that? And her apples are beautiful. Cooking apples like your great grandmother grew. You can’t buy anything like them in a shop. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but when you cook them up they’re fluffy, sweet and delicious.

I love this old apple tree, and each year at harvest time I’ve worried about losing her. What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the gully or disease struck? The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. It would be sad if our tree was added to the list. So this year we were delighted when the Guytons arrived unexpectedly on our doorstep.

Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists, and have developed their Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. Robert and Robyn are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre, and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving heritage apples.

Protecting Our Heritage

On a windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn came to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them at our Woolshed. “These trees are okay,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?” Of course they would!  When we drove home from church that Sunday, we came across them all, dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car boot. “What a find!” they chorused.

 

Photographing the heritage apples.
Robyn Stewart

One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Stewart, a former pupil of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown. Robyn grafted the cuttings (called scions) onto hardy rootstock and they have grown happily into 6 sturdy little trees. She came up to the farm recently, to photograph the original tree complete with apples, and to collect some of them as samples. She invited me to come and visit her little tree nursery and to see the new little apple trees, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

In the meantime, these lovely apples are ready to harvest and I’ve just picked a big bucket full. Yum.

Black bucket full of heritage cooking apples.
So many apples to cook and enjoy.

Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. While the men are busy gathering in the grain, I’m focused on harvesting all the other food that nature is providing. My Autumn Harvest On The Farm series is a celebration of nature’s bounty, and the foresight of the farmers who began  developing this farm more than 100 years ago.

Mushrooms Galore

Precious Pears

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain

 

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

Muscovy Ducks swimming on a farm duck pond.
Muscovy ducks on the pond.

How It All Began

Our son, Chris, arrived home from university three years ago. Parking on the front lawn, he produced out of the battered depths of his rusty Toyota two bags and a big box. One overflowing with dirty washing, another filled with hardly-used books and, finally, 10 tiny ducklings —  closely followed by their disgruntled mother and a couple of large, surprisingly mellow, drakes (males). Yes, you read that right, our son brought home some Muscovy ducks.

“These were on the duck pond outside my house,” he casually explained. “The owners didn’t want them anymore. I kinda like them, so I brought them home.”

The big question in my mind, however, was “Who’s going to feed them?”

It was obviously a rhetorical question, you can guess who fed the ducks. And their offspring. And the next generation too. Because now the ducks have made themselves well and truly at home.

Close-up of two muscovy ducks.
The ducks are well and truly at home on the farm.

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

Muscovies are fascinating birds. They may look alike but their personalities are quite different. Some are shy, others pushy: always arriving first to the meal bucket. Some stick close to the pond while others range far and wide over the paddocks. One duck is a loner and likes to potter up the gravel road far from home.

In Spring and Autumn the ducks and drakes pair off, and begin to prepare their nests. These could be found anywhere: under a bush… in the rushes… between two hay bales… But the one place you’ll never find them is up in a tree. Muscovies are big, heavy birds. They can fly but tend to stay low to the ground. They would never dream of doing anything as precarious as nesting in a tree.

Close-up of Muscovy duck on a nest in the hay barn.
Nesting quietly in the hay barn.

One peculiarity of Muscovies — and this is truly bizarre — the ducklings cannot get wet!  

Say what?  Hey back up — these are water birds that can’t get wet?

Yes, strange as it may seem, if Muscovy ducklings get their backs wet and cold in the first few weeks of life it can be fatal. However, neither ducks nor ducklings are aware of this fact and they scramble to dive into water whenever they see it. I’ve been known to administer life-saving first aid in the form of a warm hair dryer and a towel by the fire when, despite all our care, three ducklings managed to fall into a small bucket of water last spring.

Close-up of mother muscovy duck and day-old ducklings.
Safe from the rain and predators in the sturdy hutch, built for us by the local school’s woodwork class.

So we keep the mothers and babies in sturdy hutches for the first month or two. After that they are free to enjoy the pond on fine days, but we still shut them in at night or when the weather is rough. The cages protect them from more than the weather. There are plenty of stoats, wild cats and even hawks around, all looking to snaffle a tasty treat.

Group of muscovy ducks eating grain.
The ducks love their grain.

Twice a day we head up the paddock to feed the ducklings. I take the early shift as part of my morning walk. The Farmer takes the evening shift. That’s when all the ducks congregate. When they hear the little Polaris chugging towards the pond, they rush in from far and wide to gobble the scattered grain.

Too Many Ducks

Muscovy meat  is tender and sweet, and the eggs are huge and tasty. Both are considered delicacies amongst the duck-connoisseurs in our community. But these birds are our pets, and although we eat the eggs, somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to eat the ducks. However they are prolific breeders and we can’t keep too many of them because the pond won’t stay healthy and clean if it’s overpopulated.

Mum, Dad and the kids. The fifth and final batch this autumn.

So the first time the population rose above 40 I put an ad in the local paper. “Muscovy ducks for sale.” I couldn’t believe how fast they sold. We haven’t had to advertise again. Those same customers now phone up every season:

“Are the ducks for sale yet?”

And when the answer is yes, they can’t get here fast enough. I don’t ask what they do with their ducks. I don’t want to know.

 

Gathering In The Grain

Gathering In The Grain

A paddock of ripe barley, mountains in the background.
Ripe barley, waiting for the harvester.

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.

Close-up photo of ripe barley kernels on a stalk.

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 red Massey Ferguson Combine harvesting grain.
Our faithful M.F. 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.

Close up of the front cutter and reel of a combine harvester
Image by Barescar90 on Pixabay

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.

Harvesting Begins.

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.

The transport truck waits near the combine harvester to receive its next load of grain.
The truck is ready and waiting for its next load of grain.

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…

Finally Finished.

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.

Harvested paddock dotted with straw bales.
The harvest is finished. The round bales of straw wait patiently for the tractor to move them.

Did you enjoy reading about the grain harvest?  If so, you’ll probably like the other posts in this series:

Mushrooms Galore

Precious Pears

Hops in a Hurry

I’d love to know what you think. Do you have experience of harvest time on a farm? Maybe you’re from the city and interested in other ways of life?

Let me know in the comments below.

Hops In A Hurry

All the stars aligned last weekend and suddenly the hop harvest was underway. The flowers are not supposed to be ready for another ten days, but the weather gods smiled and the hops ripened fast. Fortunately it was Easter and those of us with other jobs were free. The plans I had for a quiet holiday were shelved. The hops had to be picked fast, so the call went out — HELP! And, luckily for us, people responded.  

Hops are an interesting crop — and an experimental one for our farm. You see, according to the experts, hops won’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.

Hop frames in a tree lined paddock.

It didn’t take long to identify the perfect hop-growing-spot on our farm. We call it the “Tree Surrounded Paddock.” Sheltered from the wind in every direction, flat as a pancake, beautiful soil… a southern paradise for hops we felt. And, two years down the track, the hops seem to agree.

Little boy measuring a hole in the snow.

Hops seedlings may start out small, but in just a few months they shoot up about three meters. Everyone in the family helped to build the frames needed to support such tall plants.

Tall Hop 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. But, with the drought sucking every drop of moisture out of the farm for months, the hops had to get by on short rations, just like the rest of us. They got watered each week, but not on the ideal daily basis

Interestingly, the hops don’t seem to have worried too much. I mean, just look at all the flowers!

Hop plants on the sorting table.

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. Again friends and family and even the brewers rallied round and we got the whole crop done in two days. It’s not hard work, but it can be tedious. Fortunately there was lots of good conversation, music and huge home-cooked meals to keep us all going.

Hop flower split to show yellow resin inside.

Hops are used for making beer. The flowers contain a yellow resin which is used to flavour the beer. Different varieties offer different tastes and a brewer will blend them to get a distinctive flavour in the beer. Normally the flowers would be dried and made into pellets, to be stored and used when needed. But this year our hops are heading straight to Queenstown’s Altitude Brewing, who plan to make a special green-hop brew. Time is of the essence: the flowers must arrive 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. Home brewing is on the rise and micro-breweries seem to be springing up all over the place. More and more people are becoming 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.

Beer bottles with sun between them.

Our aim is to support our local micro-breweries by providing them with naturally produced, locally grown hops. Minimal food miles and maximum goodness. Sounds perfect to me. Cheers!

Precious Pears

There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Harvest season is upon us here on the farm.

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 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. No matter how carefully I store them or what ripening tricks I try, many end up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat. But I’m ever hopeful.

Pears and bananas in a paper bag to ripen
Apparently bananas and apples emit ethylene which will help to ripen, or at least soften the fruit.

Pears are a-cooking for the future.

Fortunately 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.

Ripe 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, (with bad patches removed.)  I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.

But most will not be so ripe, so here’s how I’ll treat the main crop of windfall pears.

Pears poaching in a pot.
Pears in their sweet poaching liquid.

Simple Sweet’n’spicy Poached Pears

8-12 unripe or firm pears            4-5 tbsp brown sugar or coconut sugar                

1-2 tsp ground cinnamon            1 lemon

Water                                                     Raisins or sultanas (optional)

What to do:

  1. Cut the pears into quarters, discarding core and stem. There is no need to peel.
  2. Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
  3. Finely grate the lemon rind.
  4. Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
  5. Add these to the pot.
  6. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
  7. Cover and bring to the boil.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

To serve:

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.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears PDF

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.

What are your thoughts? 

Want to read more about harvesting on the farm?  Read Part 1 of this series, Mushrooms Galore.