IT’S always great to see a courageous innovator reap the rewards of research and hard work. For 2019 NSW Farmer of the Year, cherry grower Chris Hall, his journey began in 2005, when he bought his own orchard at Wallendbeen in the NSW Riverina.
The property had been through several owners but had once belonged to his great-uncle Roy. Now he bulldozed the trees his uncle had planted in the 1960s to begin his dream of chemical-free farming. Chris worked in small steps, planting new trees as he could afford them along with ‘green manure’ – ground-cover crops, to improve the topsoil. It didn’t take long to see results.
“When the first topsoil test results came through, I thought that can’t be right,” he recalls. “It was about 3.7% organic matter and I knew most soils around here in Wallendbeen are lucky to be 1-1.2%.”
When the next test came back showing 5% organic matter, Chris was even more perplexed. Digging down into the hugely improved soil, however, he realised there was no mistake.
“That’s when we started getting excited. We’re still adding about 1% organic matter a year to the soil and that’s our biggest achievement so far.”
Chris with wife Lee in the cherry orchards.
The excitement has continued – along with the achievements Chris has notched up through a combination of careful research and roll-your-sleeves-up hard work. He’s been cutting down on pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen, has improved water supply and usage and has worked with nature rather than trying to control it.
He’s also set up his own packing shed and farm shop, built his own grading machinery and watched his Hall Family Orchards become such a popular place to work that “I can – excuse the pun – cherry-pick my workers”, Chris says.
Chemical-free farming practices boost fruit flavour
Today, having recently marked a year of farming without chemicals and hearing his customers exclaim over the flavour of his cherries, he declares the 77-hour weeks have “all been worth it”.
Chris grew up around cherry orchards and spent many years working alongside his father, NSW Cherry Growers Association board member Trevor Hall.
Chris picks the fruit from this year’s harvest.
Being a “deep thinker” and with a degree in horticultural science, he became convinced that biological, chemical-free farming was the better way to grow. “I’ve done a lot of farming, a lot of sowing and I’ve grown up on a sheep property but being a horticulturalist means you think outside the square,” Chris explains.
“You’re open to the idea of permaculture and I’d see the beautiful soil in people’s veggie gardens and that was a trigger for me. I saw no reason I couldn’t have that in my orchard.”
Financial constraints meant that when Chris bought his 20-hectare orchard, he and wife Lee, a fulltime clinical psychologist, only had weekends to work on it. The rest of his time was spent earning a wage managing an 80ha investment-scheme orchard.
Increasing soil health maximises outputs and profits
Because the company was always looking to maximise profits, Chris started building the microbes in the soil there, increasing organic matter using compost from YLAD Living Soils
and breaking down the minerals to reduce the inputs of commercial fertilisers. He spread up to 10-15cm of straw under the trees to instantly reduce water consumption by 30%, and grew more grass in the rows.
However, he admits, with other people’s money involved it was too risky to try chemical-free farming on a larger scale. So it was only on his own property that he felt able to put all his theories into operation, and grow green manure crops such as clovers, peas, radish, cereal rye and oats to help prevent erosion and nutrient loss, provide weed control, improve soil structure and microbiology and reduce the need for nitrogen inputs.
Bins of cherries in the coolroom.
“Cover crops also contribute a lot to carbon sequestration,” Chris says. “We balance their nutrition so they photosynthesise at a higher rate and the excess sugars that result go back into the soil, feed the microbes, and that’s the secret to building topsoil.”
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The higher carbohydrates and proteins have another benefit – providing the trees with a natural resistance to insects. “I’ve been in the industry 20 years and certain insects, such as thrip, seemed to be getting worse. I kept thinking, something’s not right. There’s an imbalance or we’re killing off the beneficials.”
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He no longer uses commercial insecticides, preferring instead nutrition or boron and magnesium-sulphate sprays. “I put that on a lucerne paddock last year and the thrip just disappeared,” he says.
Not using insecticides also means beneficial insects are not wiped out so he has good populations of native bees, lacewings and ladybirds. Holding back on synthetic inputs must have taken a leap of faith, however and Chris says it was discovering a swathe of research from the United States that convinced him it was definitely possible to go chemical free.
“I’d already dropped the insecticides before I got onto this research and then decided the herbicides were holding me back a little bit as well. You could see the earthworms weren’t flourishing every time you put a herbicide on.
“I just had to make sure my plants were healthy enough, had all the nutrients in the right ratio, and had built up their own immune system,” he explains.
Chris heads out to the orchard with dogs Trigger and Remy.
The US research convinced him he could test this by replacing tissue tests with more accurate and timely sap tests.
Sap analysis can reveal crop nutrition deficiencies four to six weeks sooner than tissue tests,which means growers can quickly adjust their nutrient programs before trees show signs of problems.
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As Chris weaned his orchard off nitrogen, for instance, sap analysis helped him devise correct ratios of other growth promoters such as calcium and potassium to use instead. This ability to provide trees with precise nutrient input based on actual need also saves money.
“For example, we realised we had deficiencies of manganese and irons and the nutrients we were putting on weren’t effective,” says Chris. “Once we switched product, we had higher yields and better setting at blossom time.”
Chris hasn’t just proven himself a progressive on the land, however, he’s also shown the same initiative in the construction of his packing shed. In his previous life he managed his father’s shed and, after processing about 1,000 tonnes of cherries every year for 20 years observes: “I’d probably packed more cherries than most people in Australia.”
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Initially he outsourced packing but, unable to get the quality or reliability required, he invested in his own premises, installing a grader he built himself.
“I bought the optical part of it – the cameras, then designed my own machine using old scrap machinery that my dad was getting rid of. It would’ve cost me around $1.2 million if I’d had to buy it. I put it together for half that amount.”
Chris sorts and packs graded cherries.
The shop at the front of the shed sells cherries, jams, juice, pies and honey, and both shed and shop are often staffed by local students on holidays from school or university. Many met Chris during school visits when they came to learn about regenerative farming and were as happy to return as he was to give them jobs.
Out in the orchards, meanwhile, he also never has a shortage of pickers. “We have a regular crew, mostly Aussies and grey nomads. Last year we were short and grabbed a few backpackers and they’ve all come back this year.”
One reason Hall Family Orchards is so popular is the way Chris grows his ten varieties of cherries, including the new Royal series of Lynns, Hazels and Tiogas. “The biggest thing we’ve done is keep our trees small so we can avoid ladders, but we also train our trees so all the branching happens really low, below shoulder height, and then above that they’re nice straight flexible branches.
“The pickers love that as they can bend the branch over, tuck it under their arm and use two hands to pick. They can pick everything from the ground so their tallies are better and our bigger fruit means they can pick faster.
“Word of mouth spreads very quickly among good pickers and because we have a good reputation we can be fussy over who we have here.”
Images from the optical cherry grader, which details soft, bruised, or rain-damaged cherries and also sorts and grades for size and colour.
The cherries themselves were initially sent to Sydney and then Brisbane markets as Chris built up his reputation. “This year  we’ve got a couple of good clients in Indonesia and we’ve been supplying a line of 24mm cherries into China as well. Cherries are sold on quality so if people like your fruit you can ask for a premium.”
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As well as the orchard, Chris owns about 100ha where he runs prime lambs and has just bought some Angus cattle which he plans to use with the cover crops to further improve the soil, getting them to eat half and trample half. In addition he does contract sowing using a 3m disc seeder, which allows him to spread the word about no-till farming.
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He’s also planting native trees, shrubs and bushes around his property to encourage wildlife and insects. Chris hopes these will aid him in his most “out of the box” scheme yet – to get rid of pest birds.
Chris arriving to the orchard.
“Everyone laughs when I tell them this but there’s a fella in Australia who has done it. He planted lots of natives around the perimeters of his vineyard, they’ve attracted lots of native animals, and now he has birds of prey all around him, the starlings have disappeared and his neighbours have stopped having to use bird scarers as well,” he says. “If I had a couple of eagles flying around here that would be awesome!”
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An aerial view of the cherry orchards.
- Work-life balance
Like many farmers, Chris recently completed a farming course aimed at improving his work-life balance and says: “We have overhauled [our work practices]. We get other people to do the $25-an-hour jobs now like fencing so we can focus on the $100-an-hour jobs.”
- Take small steps
Chris has been gradually weaning himself off using nitrogen for five to six years but will still use chemicals if he has to for back-up. “I wouldn’t want to lose money if a crop was covered in fungus or a plague of locusts was coming through,” he says.
- Cover your soil
The regenerative agriculture movement and holistic grazing are all about covering your soil, managing grazing and protecting microbes. Bare soil can reach temperatures of 70-80°C on hot days. As soon as soil gets over 50°C it kills most microbes.
Farmer reaps the benefits by prioritising soil carbon sequestration
Chris and Lee Hall with their children, Nelson and Abbey with dog ‘Dutchie’.
Last year, Chris won the 2019 National Carbon Cocky Award for demonstrated improvement in carbon management in horticulture or viticulture – building carbon levels in his soil by up to 1.3% per year in some blocks. He was also a finalist in the National Carbon Cocky Award for outstanding performance in soil carbon sequestration.