Locking Down For Harvest On The Farm

Well, hasn’t it been a crazy few months? 

When you sang Auld Lang Syne in 2019 could you even have guessed what 2020 had in store?

While New Zealand locked down and hospitals geared up, the food industry went into essential service mode. 

Supermarkets did a fantastic job of keeping us fed at the service end. Meanwhile, at the production end, no-one told the plants and animals about Covid 19. They just carried on growing and ripening as usual. 

On our farm alone, we harvested four crops between March and May. 

So, here’s the tale of our lockdown harvest.

The Grain Harvest

Paddock of ripe barley during the lockdown harvest month.
Paddocks full of oats and barley awaited the lockdown harvest.

We own an ageing Massey Ferguson harvester. It’s given sterling service over the past 20 years, gathering grain on our farm and two others as well. Consequently, the grain harvest was in full swing when Jacinda announced that NZ would be locking down. 

Rumours flew that we’d have to sit in our houses and let things rot. That was nonsense, of course. Farmers could carry on so long as we observed all the rules and made everyone safe. 

It was a strange, old time. Gone were my hours in the kitchen, whipping up lunches and snacks galore. Now, everyone brought their own food and ate it separately. The truck and tractor drivers stayed in their cabs and occasionally waved as each passed by. 

It was a lonely old time for our combine driver, too. 

Usually, he has plenty of visitors at harvest time. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews, past and present farmers and the occasional townie all love to man the spare seat in the cab. And Pat enjoys a bit of company cos it’s tedious travelling around and around paddocks of yellow grain.

There were no visitors in 2020. This season, poor Pat was on his own. 

Harvesting The Hops

Hops on the bine
Some of our newest hops ready for harvest.

While grain poured into the silos, the hops were going gangbusters. 

Our plans for the hop harvest festival went out the window. Abandoned, the idea of Woofers and caravans by the woolshed. The good folk at Altitude Brewing shelved plans to create another Garston green-hop brew. 

Instead, our farm’s two little family bubbles were on their own with rows and rows of hops to pick in a race against time.

Last year, we cut all the bines at the same time and carted them to a central location. Music was blaring, and the tables were surrounded by people plucking thousands of hops. 

In the 2020 lockdown, we cut the bines down six at a time. Each afternoon, Terry and I piled two or three onto the back of the Polaris and trundled them up to our house, leaving James and his family to deal with the rest.

It took me about five minutes to decide that standing on a cold, concrete carport for hours by myself was not going to work. So, we lined the lounge carpet with tarps and brought the hop vines inside. 

Afternoon and night, I cut the vines into manageable chunks and piled them on the living room floor. Thank goodness for hot drinks and Sky TV! 

Despite the tarpaulins, hop leaves went everywhere. So did spiders, large and small. Eeek!  

Hop plants filled the lounge with aroma, leaves and spiders.

I vacuumed FREQUENTLY, but tiny creepy-crawlies still crawled out of the sofa and bit me on the arm. 

The hop harvest seemed to go on for days, but suddenly, the flowers were too far gone. It hurt to admit defeat and leave some hops on the bines.

The Saffron Ripens

Ripe red saffron strands emerge from the purple flower.

Hard on the heels of the hops, the saffron’s delicate purple flowers began to poke their heads above the earth. 

Still in our separate bubbles — Terry and I at one end of the paddock and James’ family at the other — we began the saffron harvest. 

With thousands of two-year-old bulbs in the ground, there was no way we could do this one on our own. But, equally, lockdown rules made it hard for Kiwi Saffron owners Jo and Steve Daley to travel or to bring in their usual WWoofers to help. 

Fortunately, there were only a few hundred flowers at first — one or two buckets — each day. They were easy to pick but time-consuming for Lizette and the boys to process in their carefully-cleaned sleepout. It kept them busy each afternoon — an essential for lockdown — but they were more than relieved when Level 3 arrived, bringing with it a bubble of Wwoofers to take over the job. 

They came just in time, for the flowers were multiplying and producing bucket loads every day. Thank goodness there were plenty of Wwoofers who stayed in New Zealand when the borders closed. The saffron harvest would have been ruined without them.

It takes hours to process buckets full of saffron flowers. All you want are those tiny red strands.

Trudging up and down the rows over clumps of uneven soil was hard on my knees, so I retreated when the Wwoofers arrived. But, Terry went out into the paddock every day to pluck “his” end of the saffron rows. What a trooper.

Apples galore

2020 was a bumper year for all the apples too.

The gorgeous apples by the woolshed — best described as “sort of like a Cox’s Orange” — ripened crisp and tart in mid-April. Often these apples are only on the high branches, but this year there were lots within reach. It was fun to pop down with a bucket for apples and sacks for dry pine cones which littered the ground. (Pine cones make the best kindling ever.)

We don’t usually get so many beautiful apples on this particular tree.

There were plenty to pick from our unique, heritage apple tree up the gully too. 

This year I had the time to process and freeze many apples and to carefully wrap others individually in newspaper. I stored them in a crate, and so far, they’ve stayed perfect, so fingers crossed.

When the autumn winds came, as they always do, apples tumbled to the ground. Lizette and her boys rescued cratefuls of these windfalls and sent them up to Laura Douglas at Real Country to feed her pigs. 

Like all tourism businesses, Real Country is devastated by the lockdown, so Laura did appreciate the piggy treats.

As for us, we’ve eaten so much apple crumble that we’re well over that particular dessert now. I really must add more apple recipes to my collection. 

What’s Your Story?

So, that’s our lockdown story. But everyone had a different experience of lockdown, of course. What’s yours? 

I’m hoping to put together a post-lockdown series of stories about how innovative Kiwi businesses are pivoting to survive and thrive.

Contact me now if you know someone who’d like to be featured or share this story to spread the word.

Walnut Trees On The Farm

Walnuts from the walnut trees on the farm.

Planting Our Baby Walnut Trees.

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.

Continue reading “Walnut Trees On The Farm”

What To Do With A Walnut

Walnut picture montage

Walnut trees are both a valuable source of food and wood and come in several varieties. Some produce beautiful nuts, perfect for eating. Others are much sought-after for their furniture-grade hardwood.

We have both sorts on our farm — but we didn’t realise that when we planted them. Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I appreciate the joys of having these abundant and beautiful trees on my doorstep.

Here are a few reasons why I’m so pleased to have walnuts in my life.

Continue reading “What To Do With A Walnut”

The Old Apple Tree

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.

Continue reading “The Old Apple Tree”

Hops In A Hurry

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.

Hop frames in a tree lined paddock.

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.

Little boy measuring a hole in the snow.
Even the youngest McNamees joined in when we put up the hop frames.

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.

The brewer from Altitude Brewing inspects our towering hop plants.
Eliot Menzies from Altitude Brewing came to help harvest the hops for his Green Hop Beer.

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!

Hop plants on the sorting table.

Harvesting Hops

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.

Hop flower split to show yellow resin inside.
Inside a ripe hop flower. The yellow is not pollen, but the resin which provides the distinctive hop flavour.

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.

Beer bottles with sun between them.

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.

Cheers!

More Hop and Beer Stories To Enjoy On The Blog

Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

Town and Country: Team Building At Its Best

Party On: Harvest Festival At The Hops

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, 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 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, 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.

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

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears

8-12 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.
    1. Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
    1. Finely grate the lemon rind.
    1. Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
    1. Add these to the pot.
    1. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
    1. Cover and bring to the boil.
    1. 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.
  1. 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.

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.

Harvesting Stories Abound On The Blog

Mushrooms Galore.

Walnut Trees On The Farm

The Old Apple Tree

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain