One year in the meadow.
Spring, summer, autumn and winter: what happens over a year in our apple meadows? A short tour of twelve lively, vibrant months of the apple growing season.
Winter wonderland. Snow covers the tracks into the apple meadows. The air is fresh. The sun hangs low in the sky. The barometer has sunk even lower. A quiet hum breaks the silence. Electric cherry pickers pick a path between the rows of trees. Skilfully and mindfully, we wield our pruning shears among the bare branches. Snip. Snip. Snip.
This is how we prepare our apple trees during hibernation, ready for the next harvest. The idea is to bring the tree into a narrow ‘spindle’ shape so the apples get enough moisture and light later. But how best? Well, the exact cut will depend on the variety of apple. And of course the philosophy of the farmer.
We prune the trees that we haven’t yet trimmed into a spindle. Professional training and lifelong learning are a key focus for our organic farmers. We attend presentations and seminars on all topics from occupational health and safety to hygiene, cultivation techniques, and innovation.
Now it’s time to plant out a few new apple meadows. Specifically, the ones we dug up in late autumn. Not an easy task. We need to string wires between posts, set up sprinkler irrigation, put wire tensioning in place. And even fix hail nets if necessary.
At the end of the month the strength of the sun begins to grow as daytime temperatures gradually increase. Light and warmth bring a new vibrancy to the meadows - the first buds peep through. Secretly, very still and silent, spring creeps in.
Hello spring! Nature has a bounce in its step and the apple trees are budding. Green tips form and these develop into what we call ‘mouse ears’. A wonderful spectacle of nature – and not just for the delighted eyes of the organic farmer!
Jack Frost still sometimes skips his way through the meadows at night. So how do we protect our buds? Either we run through the rows of trees lighting candles to raise the temperature - or we turn on the sprinkler system. Yes, that’s right! That’s because water freezes in sub-zero temperatures, warming the buds and blossoms by releasing heat as it cools.
Big buds. Early blossom. Full bloom. Apple trees produce an explosion of blossoms. But there’s bad news: if they all remain on the tree, this results in overhanging. Then the apples will not ripen and will never develop their ideal size and depth of flavour. So we thin the blossoms out using a ‘wire machine’ or we use the natural thinning effect of lime sulphur.
Flowers attract bees - our own or those of neighbouring beekeepers. We sow seeds along tracks among the trees: lucerne grass, mustard seed, yarrow, clover and other plants thrust their roots into the ground, encouraging helpful micro-organisms, while they grow and bloom for the insects. And they’re also easy on the eye.
It’s also time to plant chosen saplings into furrows in the ground. Until they can establish deep roots, they can rest on the wires stretched out between the posts. They will now focus only on growing for two years and won’t bear much fruit in that time, but from the third year on they will reward us with a plentiful harvest of our favourite fruit.
Without the use of protection, aphids, fungi and scab would have a free rein. So ‘pesticide spraying’ is carried out in organic meadows. But using different ingredients: because us organic farmers don’t use chemicals that don’t occur in nature. We use naturally occurring substances. But even these are subject to strict agreed limits, closely regulated and inspected.
Our rule of thumb is to create an open, airy, layout for our meadows and trees. This helps them to dry quickly, protecting against excess moisture. When replanting, we focus on resistant varieties like Natyra®, Bonita, Pilot and Topaz.
Mid-May is the season of St. Pancras, St. Servatius, St. Boniface and St. Sophia. Known as the “Ice Saints”, their feast days are frequently accompanied by sharp cold snaps. Afterwards, the nights generally remain frost-free. In this time the apples are in the cell-division phase and preparing for a period of rapid growth.
Pick. Pick. Pick. With our families and whenever needed, other helping hands. Because despite thinning the blossoms in April, there is still too much fruits hanging on the trees. Depending on the variety and age of the tree, there should be around 100 to 120 apples on each.
The weather decides when hail nets – if any have been setup – are closed. They provide protection from hail, but also from too much sun. Now is also the best time for mulching and turning over the soil – ideally early in the morning and late in the evening to protect helpful organisms. Turning the soil cleanses it, loosening the soil and enriching it with oxygen. This way the trees also get more nitrogen and the apples can grow even better.
Drip irrigation of our meadows is indispensable during the summer heat. We’re already thinking in advance and planning our harvest, contacting harvest helpers. Most come from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Macedonia. We have known many of them for several years, some of them for decades.
Trust is good, monitoring is better. Internal inspectors and external auditors can knock on the farmhouse door at any time from April to October. They cast a critical eye over our registers, our farms, our meadows ... and the accommodation for our harvest helpers. Good job!
The results of ripeness tests on early varieties will tell us when to harvest them. Our organic standards are exacting. If tree analysis on the outer edge of an orchard detects traces of unpermitted substances these apples will not be sold by Biosüdtirol (as the name says: 100% organic!). Instead they will be sold as conventional apples, by a partner cooperative.
And then – it’s harvest time! Summerred and Sansa. The first early varieties are ripe for the picking – and by roughly mid-August so is Royal Gala, our main variety. Now our harvest helpers move into the meadows making their way to empty apple baskets so they can fill them with a good 300 kilos of deliciousness. We also use Pluk-o-Traks and cherry pickers, depending on each farmer’s farming philosophy and the slope gradients in the meadows.
Between two and five picking rounds per variety are required. During each round only the ripest apples are picked and placed in the basket by hand. The others are allowed to ripen for another couple of days. Finally, we harvest the apples that will go on to be processed.
Red Delicious, Evelina®, Golden Delicious, Kanzi, Jazz, Granny, Natyra®, Bonita. Several very well known apple varieties are ripe for picking in September. We harvest the fruits of our working year meadow-by-meadow and tree-by-tree in several rounds of picking.
In our cooperative our apples are either set down for storage or sorted. It’s a job for our sorting machine: it sorts the apples by size, weight and quality. In the process, they are also cleaned, measured, weighed and scanned. The result? Boxes filled to the brim with uniform, top quality apples to go to the next stage of cooling and then packing.
But this is by no means the last step in the process. In the packing room each apple is carefully checked again before its added to its packaging unit. The packs are grouped on pallets and loaded onto refrigerated lorries. The road to the fruit aisle is a long one.
Sweet or sour? In October we mainly harvest Fuji and Braeburn. Just like other varieties, these two also have their own window for flavour development. In the long-term, we plant out a range of varieties that’s broad and varied enough to cover the entire year.
Apples that are not sorted and sold immediately are stored in the cooperative in sealed refrigerated units. We put them into a kind of light beauty sleep by exposing them to a special solution of oxygen and nitrogen so they breathe more slowly, which means the speed of ripening decreases. Ready to be packed and delivered over the next few months and certainly before the end of July the following year. They remain crunchy, delicious, and all set for the fruit aisle.
Pink Lady®. The last apples of a long harvest season are plucked from the trees that have carried them. In the meantime our organic farmers are already thinking about the year ahead: which meadows need to be dug up and replanted? Variety and age of the trees are the most important criteria for this decision. One tried and tested method is first to cut off all the branches using lopping shears, then fell the trunk with a machine saw and, finally, remove the root-ball with a digger.
We dry the branches, sticks and trunks to fire up our ovens with their wood in the coming year. At the same time, we winter-proof our machines. Cleaning, greasing, repairing. And protecting them from snow and frost over the cold season.
Nature retires for its winter sleep – and we follow. Warm living rooms or sunny beaches are ideal places from which to look back on the year. And from which to plan the next year. New machines? New cutting techniques? Innovations in the world of organic farming?
Some of us are busy with apple trees before we’ve even decorated the Christmas tree. By pruning the trees, we ease them into hibernation and ensure that they can grow properly in the new year. Happy New Year!