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.