Hundreds of hectares of apple orchards cover the Harcourt Valley. About 40 percent of Victoria’s apples are grown in Harcourt. Harcourt orchards produce crisp, attractive, tasty apples. Varieties grown in Harcourt include;- Pink Lady, Royal Gala, Fuji, Sundowner, Red Delicious, Granny Smith Apples, Packham, Williams (WBC) and Beurre Bosc Pears. In addition cherries, peaches, plums and nectarines are grown.
History of the industry
The Harcourt valley has long been renowned for growing quality apples and pears. The flavour and crispness of Harcourt Apples is derived from the valley’s sandy granitic soils, access to irrigation and its cold climate. Samuel Sutton was the first to realise, in 1853, the fertility of the soils and the suitability of Harcourt for apple growing. The first orchards were planted in 1857 by Messrs William Eagle, William Ely, Henry Ely and Nathanael Vick. By the 1880s Harcourt apples were being exported to England. The industry expanded rapidly in the first half of the 20th Century. Hail and frost took their toll and, together with loss of export markets in 1962, resulted in a slump. Today there are about twenty orchards in the Harcourt valley.
In the early days, apple trees were planted 20 feet apart, pruned hard and the soil continuously ploughed, exhausting both the soil and the tree. Fruit trees were sprayed to combat insect pests and fungal diseases. Today our orchards have reduced the need to spray by orchard hygiene, quarantine, resistant rootstocks and biological control. After 1980 pruning and growing methods have been directly copied from those used in Washington State, USA. In the modern orchard mowing, and herbicide sprays in the tree line, take the place of cultivation and preserve organic matter, while as little pruning as possible is done, other than initial shaping. The trees are planted no more than 3.5 metres apart and water is applied by a trickle system.
The traveller will find large acreages of orchard on the Old Calder, Dann’s Road, Reservoir Road and above McIvor Road. These include orchards of W F Montague, biggest wholesale growers in Australia and of Geoffrey Thompson, who have 350 acres of apple trees here in Harcourt. The orchards consist of closely planted apple trees, some on trellis. Automated reticulated systems deliver carefully measured amounts of water by tiny irrigation pipes. Harcourt orchards are the most efficient use of water in terms of food produced per hectare. Netting over orchards protects the fruit from hail and sun damage.
The view from surrounding hills is of a tapestry of orchards, particularly in summer and autumn. Blossom time in spring is followed by a busy scene at picking time. Picking is done by hand using ladder and picking bags. When full the picking bags are emptied into plastic or wooden bins which when filled are transported to storage by tractor. The fruit is stored in controlled atmosphere conditions and is thus fresh and crisp when brought out to be packed and marketed. New season apples may be obtained at about the time of Harcourt Applefest in March. Roadside apple shops may be visited; these store their fruit at the Harcourt Coolstore. Brightly painted trucks carry our fruit to Melbourne Wholesale Market.
Harcourt is home to some of the largest commercial plantings of cider apples in Australia. Henry of Harcourt and Bress have orchards of traditional cider apple varieties from England and France, varieties chosen for their acidity. Tastings, cellar door sales and picnic hamper lunches are available at the cideries, a must-visit for every district tourist.