Take 30+ curious beer aficionados and a bumper crop of hops. Throw in a delicious barbeque and a keg of Altitude Brewing’s best thirst-quenching brew. Mix with a dollop of music and you have yourself a recipe for the Garston Hops 2019 Hop-Picking Party.
The Big Hops Harvest Problem:
200 hop vines on two farms — all of them covered in ripe, cone-shaped flowers. A tiny window of time in which to pick them — and only two busy farmers both trying to juggle multiple farm jobs. The big hop companies have this process all mechanised, but we’re a tiny outfit, just starting out.
The McNamee family had a few walnut trees planted on the roadside near the home farm, so Grandma always had plenty of nuts to spare.
Long ago, when we popped our transportable house onto its current site, we created a perfect orchard space just over the fence. But while I was still procrastinating over the best fruit trees to choose, Terry decided to plant walnuts instead.
There’s nothing quite like crunchy, crisp apples straight from the tree. But if you ask your great-granny about her youth, I guarantee she’ll say, “Apples tasted better back then.”
And it’s true!
Since the 20th century we’ve let many old varieties of fruit and vegetables slip quietly into oblivion — and with them have gone taste… aroma…and diversity. Count up how many different apple names you can see on the supermarket shelves. You might see six, but years ago there would have been dozens throughout the country.
It’s both sad and dangerous for the environment that we’ve lost so much plant diversity in the last hundred years. That’s why we treasure the oldest tree on our farm.
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:
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.