Soaked pants, ant bites and grumpy slugs

I visited Mum’s farm on the weekend, an avocado farm down near Albany. One of the first in the area, started back in the era when Aussies thought that “vegetables” meant cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and potato, a farm well overtaken now by larger and more water-hungry producers. The main orchard is watered by drip irrigation, and November is the time when the ground begins to finally dry out enough to think about whether we need to turn it on. Which means it’s time to check the lines, clear the lines, make sure everything is working.

Checking the orchard is (along with milking goats) one of my earliest memories of a regular farm “chore”. Not that it ever seemed like a chore to me, except the long walk back from the end of M row which always seemed to take forever. But it was a real, regular job that we had to do on the farm and that everybody ended up pitching in on. It’s very much a many-hands-make-light-work-task. If you have working eyes and working feet, you can help cover the rows. I remember the first few times my instructions were just to walk along and make sure there was water coming out at each tree, not too little and not too much, and if there was a problem, grab a grownup. Over time I learnt to solve the smaller problems myself – find the dripper tube where it had been blown out to and put it back in, or clear the drip feeder from dirt and slugs so that water flowed again. Eventually I got to have my own pair of secateurs, spare pipe and a handful of pipe connectors to make most of the basic repairs myself. And at least once a week during watering season we’d walk every section, every row, check every tree, make sure they were all getting water.

That was easily thirty years ago now. Not much has changed. Many of the modern farms locally use sprinkler systems now, I think – big sprinklers that cover the ground under several trees at once. I almost envy their lack of workload. But their water use is much higher than ours – we simply couldn’t sustain that level of irrigation with our supply. And I don’t think any of our family believe that we should do anything so wasteful anyhow. We did, as the orchard grew, change to rings of dripper lines around each tree instead of just a few near each trunk, in allowance for the broad and shallow root system that avocado trees have. So now there’s a slightly longer checking process at the start of the season. And that’s what I helped with on the weekend.

We started with section 4, the quarter of the orchard at the bottom of the hill. It’s the one that dries out first so can take additional water earliest. It’s also the one under greatest pressure so most likely to have spectacular breaches. The first season check is really about making sure the big breaches are found and fixed. The spot where tree roots in the winter have pulled connectors apart, or a misplaced turn with the slasher ripped an exposed pipe, or where the wear and tear of time and stress has split a pipe end, or where the wire holding the end of a dripper ring closed has succumbed to rust.

It’s also about opening the ends of the lines, first at the end of each row and then secondly at the end of each tree’s dripper ring. Opening the ends of the lines clears them. You get a rush of muddy water, first old-coloured, then dirt-coloured, then any blockages fly free in sputtering chunks and the water runs clear again. Straightforward. But wet. And muddy, crawling around under trees to find the ends. And likely to result in ant bites seeing as pipe ends are a wonderful dry place to make ant nests during the winter. Those blockages often turn out to be little clumps of loose dirt filled with white ant eggs and their disgruntled guardians who let you know that they didn’t appreciate the sudden disturbance. Later in the season the blockages will be slugs more often than not, hunting the damp and protected places to hide from summer’s heat, but this time of year when the pipes haven’t run for seven months they’re not quite as common as the ants.

We only got a short way through section 4 this time. I’d have liked to do more, but the water runs for an hour so you cover as much ground as you can while it’s on and then stop. And it was a short visit so we didn’t manage to fit in a second run, as much as I’d like to have done so. Which means we did perhaps 10-15% of the orchard. It’s a start, I guess, not much of one but better than nothing. When we visit next at New Year, likely much of the initial check will have been done. But there will be the regular checks still, walking the whole of the orchard across a week with secateurs, wire and connectors in your pocket, muddy knees from crawling under the trees to find the pipes, spraying yourself in the face while sealing up a burst pipe or fixing a lost dripper. The usual.

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