Here is a relatively short (I could have written a lot more!) account of my time working at Ragmans Farm picking and processing the apple harvest which is primarily used to create high quality organic juice. I have given some thoughts and experiences from each of the three main stages of production.
The orchards at Ragmans contain a huge variety of different apple trees; Over 30 apple varieties are grown for juice and another 10 pear and cider apple varieties can be found here too. This gives plenty of benefits through diversity but means finding the type of apples that are ripe and required to create a particular flavour of juice can be a bit of a challenge. Armed with maps of the trees and riding around on Dumpy, a mini 4×4 pickup/tractor type vehicle, we fill sacks and large wooden boxes with wonderful chemical free apples ready to be taken to the refrigerated shipping container where they will wait for the next stage on their journey to becoming a fine bottle of pure fruit juice.
The only spraying that is done here is with Aerated Compost Tea which is designed to inoculate the trees with all the beneficial microbiology that is found in good compost. Essentially it boosts the immune system of the tree as this friendly microbiology competes with the unfriendly ones. By creating a liquid spray only a very small amount of solid compost is needed compared to the enormous amount of solid compost that would be required to spread on the soil around each tree. As Pete the senior farm worker at Ragmans explains to the students on the Permaculture Design Course: “We do still get diseases in the orchard but it’s a balance of diseases, with none becoming dominant and posing a real problem.”
The use of Aerated Compost Tea is an experiment which only time will reveal to be a success or not. So far the results are promising and I think the apples taste great.
Occasionally whilst out picking in the orchard there is a moment to take in the beautiful views of the farm and the surrounding land. This is a time when I am thankful to be working in Mother Nature’s office rather than the brick boxes I have been enclosed in so many times before. Even after franticly picking Bramleys amidst a jungle of stinging nettles during the pouring rain I felt better than I ever did coming home from a day working in a call centre. After all, being stung by stinging nettles is good for your blood circulation and it was a beautiful moment of contrast to see the sun come out just as we were finishing.
Most of the time out in the orchards is spent filling sack after sack then lifting them into and out of Dumpy which in my view is a far more productive workout than I could ever get at a gym.
This year the harvest has been a lot better than the previous year. However the constant rain, and the resulting water logging of the soil, last year has almost certainly caused damage to the roots of many trees. This means some of the energy they would have used for fruit production will have instead been used to re-establish their root systems. Hopefully next year they’ll be fighting fit again and able to concentrate on the delicious gifts they produce.
As part of my increasing desire to experience the world around me with a deeper sense of connection I have been apologising to some the trees for the rough treatment when a little shaking is required and also thanking them for what they give to us. I view the trees here as my equals and I think it’s important to recognise the hard work that they do all year round to give us the apples that we take to The Juice Shed. Thank you trees!
The Juice Shed is where all the processing of apples (and pears, raspberries and blackcurrants for the blends) into juice is done. This happens in two stages, the first of which is to clean the apples in a large tank of water. Then they are loaded, by hand, into a mill. This machine is much like a wood chipper that turns whole apples into a pulp that can be loaded into the press where it is squashed until the juice has been squeezed out and pumped away through a filter into a large container.
In contrast to the peaceful open surroundings of the orchards this stage of the process is confined to a small and rather noisy space, but still outside in the fresh air. The combined sounds created by the mill, the press and the pump mean verbal communication has to be shouted and hand signals and gestures are often more effective.
This is a bit of a messy job, especially when hurriedly emptying the dry pulp into large builder’s sacks quickly enough so the cloths that contain the pulp can be used for the next round of pressing. This is when I have received a lot of unwanted attention from the local wasp population, who perhaps feel that we are simply putting on a party for them. I’ve only been stung once but have had our yellow and black friends flying at my face and trying to land on me many times. This has had the welcome effect of making me a lot less bothered about being around them – although I still prefer to keep a healthy amount of personal space between us.
Bottling and pasteurising:
Stage two in The Juice Shed is known to me as Bottle World. At this point the fresh juice from the pressing is pumped out of the large container through a filter and down into the two bottling machines where I have spent many hours shuffling between a pallet full of bottles and the six filling pipes. Early in the morning the bottles are cold, so are my hands and so is the juice. It makes for a slow start but pretty soon, as all warm up, I find myself getting into a rhythm where by my feet are moving in a sort of dance that carries me the shortest distance, back and forth, from the pallet to the machines.
The filled bottles are sealed with a cap and are then loaded into one of four hot water tanks that will pasteurise the juice allowing it to be stored for many years. I always look forward to the first batch of bottles going into the tanks as the rush of hot steamy air that emerges is a delightful treat on a cold morning in Bottle World.
Once the juice is bottled and pasteurised it is laid to rest in a large crate where it awaits the chance to be labelled, packaged and sent off to be enjoyed by all the customers who buy this labour of love.
Some overall thoughts on my experience:
The last two months working the apple season at Ragmans Farm has involved some of the most physically challenging and demanding work I’ve ever done for a sustained length of time. Day after day, week after week I’ve crawled into bed each night to recharge my batteries just enough to get through the next day. The experience has certainly shown me my limitations and started me thinking how I would like to develop my strength and strengths both physically and mentally. It has also been some of the most rewarding and inspiring work I’ve ever done, an experience that I will never forget and have gained much from.
I am extremely grateful to all the people here at Ragmans who have given and shared with me this nourishing experience. I feel this place and the people who live and work here are an important part of the potential for a brighter future where we as a species can learn to live with the land and the rest of nature; A potential future where humans, once again, become a constructive part of nature and improve our own experience of life and reality. There needs to be more opportunities like the one I have been privileged to experience and I hope that I can find more next year after I’ve left Ragmans. I urge everyone to seek them out or create them if you can.
For more information on the work at Ragmans Farm have a look at the following links:
And for more information about Aerated Compost Tea I recommend the book ‘Teaming With Microbes’