Ian, David and Robert Keens
What we’ve accomplished:
Until his retirement a few years ago, Ian Keens ran a substantial horticultural enterprise growing Biodynamic almonds, citrus and vegetables together with some cattle on several properties totalling over 200 hectares around Nangiloc, on the Murray River near Mildura in the far north-west corner of Victoria. Ian’s son David joined him 7 years ago, and another son, Robert came home in early 2016. Since Ian’s retirement, David and Robert run the enterprise together and have increased its size to 1100 acres (440Ha), concentrating on almonds and citrus and adding 15 acres of avocadoes. They no longer run cattle or grow vegetables.
Ian’s grandfather selected irrigated land at nearby Merbein in 1904. After the second world war his father and uncle took over that property and developed more country. When Ian left school he studied agriculture at Dookie Agricultural College, and, after working on the family properties for a year, started work with the Victorian Agriculture Department. He did research on trellising and fertilisers for fruit trees, and ran herbicide trials on citrus, melons and other crops.
After three years, Ian’s father and uncle bought another 50 acre citrus property and asked him to run it, which he did. Three years later, the share farmer who was running their property at Nangiloc left and Ian took over there too, growing water melons, rock melons, pumpkins, carrots, lettuce, silver beet, onions and, later, almonds. Ian was following the Agriculture Department line that there was a chemical to fix every problem, and for a while everything grew well. But the problems steadily grew worse and worse. One year Ian was pushing out almond prunings when the tractor forks drove into the ground and pulled up a huge slab of dirt, which stank. It was severely compacted, and although it contained some organic material, it was completely anaerobic. This shocked Ian, and he started to think that something was seriously wrong with the farming system he had grown up with, studied, researched, and advised on.
His scientific training had taught him that you needed something to tell you that something is wrong, rather than to use your innate connection with nature. But this was an inescapable direct observation of a serious problem with the soil. The soil had basically collapsed, and had no structure or air in it. Water penetration had become a real problem, and Ian had to repeatedly cultivate the soil to allow water in. He finally came to the realisation that there had to be another way.
He talked to his sister, who had always been interested in agriculture, as well as in Rudolf Steiner’s work. She suggested he try Biodynamics. They wrote to Alex Podolinsky (in 1987), who came up with Biodynamic orchardist, Linton Greenwood (Merrigum). Alex asked Ian to get a fork or shovel so they could look at the soil, but, while he was going to the shed to get a shovel, Alex took a few steps towards the almond trees and called out “don’t worry, its all dead!” Alex said that, although it was early June and a little cold, he should get some 500 on. Linton had brought a stirring machine with him, and they applied the first 500 spray. Ian didn’t see much change after this spray, and left it a bit late for the second spray, the following spring. It was getting hot and windy by the time he applied 500, and, again he didn’t see any appreciable change to the soil. The third time, a big rain came straight after applying the 500 and washed it out. The fourth time, he got it just right and the change was unbelievable. The soil darkened in colour, and the improvement in structure was profound.
Ian took his dad to a patch where he had sprayed 500 and grown a big crop of sudax working it in as a green manure to prepare the ground for vegetables. The soil was rich and friable, and full of worms. Then he took his dad to part of the almond orchard where he hadn’t yet started spraying 500, and was still spraying herbicides on the tree lines. He could hardly get the fork in, and eventually managed to lift a slab of soil a metre wide which, when he cracked it open, was just like concrete. It was a huge contrast.
On one of Alex’s visits, Ian wanted to show him some soil, but Alex pointed to part of the almond orchard 80 metres away and said “no, no, no, this is what your ground has to look like.” He could see by the vitality of the trees and grass that the soil would be good, and when they dug there it was some of the best soil Ian had seen. Ian says he is slowly developing his ability to see the vitality (or lack of ) in the trees and other crops.
Ian and his wife Maree farmed around 500 acres (200Ha) in total, spread around several properties at Nangiloc and nearby Colignan. This is very low rainfall Mallee country, averaging 10” (250mm) annually, brought alive by the development of irrigation from the Murray River by the (Canadian) Chaffey brothers after 1887.
Without irrigation, this whole area would be Mallee desert, marginal country even for grain growing. The Chaffey brothers’ vision, and experience in developing irrigation farming in California, turned the area into a highly productive food-bowl, turning out a wide variety of tree fruits, nuts, grapes, and vegetables. Farmers bought land which came with a water Right, and high security water for permanent crops meant just that.
However, governments have let the farmers down badly over the years, grossly over-allocating water, and selling off low security water before sufficient high security water was in the dams. And now they have established a whole new industry of water trading, creating immense problems for farmers.
Ian considered drip irrigation as an alternative to sprinklers, but in a Biodynamic system, where trees are fed from soil humus in a biologically active soil, under a healthy pasture, it is important to apply water to the whole area. Drippers apply water to only a very restricted area, and the bulk of the area wouldn’t then be able to grow a healthy pasture. Conventional growers tend to apply soluble nutrients via their drip irrigation water. Trees are pushed to their limits, producing more nuts than the Keens’ system can, but nuts of arguably lesser quality and flavour.
Because of the sheer size of the operation and the considerable difficulties in mechanical harvesting of almonds under a natural system, the Keens converted their property to Biodynamics in stages over a period of years. The citrus orchards (now totalling 110 acres/ 44Ha) and the vegetable operations (varying up to 40 acres/16Ha) were the easiest to convert, but the almonds (150 acres/60Ha) posed very serious challenges.
They started with a block of almonds at Nangiloc, but found that they were planted too closely for a natural system. Overhead sprinklers exacerbated the situation and they ran into fungal problems. They had to revert to spraying fungicides on that block, and tried again with another block. This one was more open, but the overhead sprinklers again caused fungal problems. Almonds are quite susceptible to fungal problems, which conventional growers solve with fungicides. Fungi evolve, and new fungicides have to be developed, each one more expensive than the last. Ian says that, just as there are beneficial insects which are killed when insecticides are sprayed, there are beneficial fungi on the leaves which are killed along with the bad ones, when fungicides are used.
Eventually, Ian redeveloped a four acre almond block, which had low level sprinklers, removing every second tree from a 24’X12’ planting, resulting in a 24’X24’ (7.3mX7.3m) spacing . Now, at last, progress was made. The extra air and light, together with the low level sprinklers, made it possible to beat the fungal problems. Encouraged by this success, he doubled the area converted, and doubled it again the following year. It would take 18 years to complete the Biodynamic conversion of all 150 acres of almonds (the final block was certified in 2004).
 All plantings since then have been at 24X24 feet spacings
Almonds are susceptible to low pollination so are planted in alternating rows of compatible cross pollinating varieties. Beekeepers are paid to bring bees into the orchard at the rate of three hives per acre.
Orchard Floor Management
In conventional almond growing, herbicides are used to keep the orchard floor bare, particularly at harvest time. Almonds are harvested by mechanically shaking the trees, after which the sweeper sweeps and blows the almonds into windrows from which the harvester picks them up. Any grass or rubbish seriously interferes with this process.
To grow almonds (or any other orchard crop) Biodynamically, a healthy, dynamically managed pasture is required under the trees. It took many years to develop a system that would maintain healthy pasture while allowing unimpeded harvest of the nuts.
Ian developed a mixed pasture under the trees, with a high proportion of clovers. The species that have been found best suited to the system are white clover, strawberry clover, medics, rye grass and prairie grass, with a little barnyard grass as well. Varieties are chosen carefully to suit the Biodynamic system. Many modern varieties are bred to be tall and vigorous, but are often “all sap and no nutrients”. The pasture is kept growing vigorously through to Christmas to out-compete the summer weeds. Summer weeds include caltrop, which has a long central stem that sprawls over the ground and is covered in prickles. If this is allowed to grow it can wind around inside the harvester and cause immense “prickly” problems.
Clovers don’t like the alkaline soil, and Ian was surprised when Alex Podolinsky told him early on that his soil needed lime. In fact Alex was right, and the orchard pasture really only developed well when lime was applied. There is a high level of calcium in the soil but it is locked up, and tests revealed calcium deficiency in the trees. In general the only inputs used on the property are an organically certified compost (which is usually re-composted with the Biodynamic compost preparations), tested feedlot manure for BD compost making, some rock dust, lime and periodically, trace elements – copper, zinc, iron, manganese, and magnesium.
The pasture is irrigated by low level sprinklers and mowed periodically to keep it growing dynamically. Mowing also helps control capeweed - it doesn’t stand mowing as well as the clovers do. Once the capeweed has finished flowering, mowing is stopped to let the clovers develop. The tree line is mowed less frequently to stop the summer weeds developing. Two mowers are used for the tree lines, one that is retracted manually (hydraulically) and one that rolls around obstructions.
The whole property is sprayed with prepared 500 twice a year, usually in April and September. After Christmas, the orchard is prepared for harvest (harvest goes from late February until April). The orchard floor, including the tree line, is mowed down very low. The tree line is then gas flamed to remove all vegetation as it is particularly hard to get the almonds moving out of that area if any vegetation remains.
When wind or birds start to knock almonds down, they are swept and blown into windrows and picked up by the harvester. The trees are mechanically shaken when the majority of the fruit is ready to shake. After each harvest run, the grass is mown down hard again. This might be done three or four times for each variety, and, as the harvester can only go at half speed over grass, harvest costs are much higher than for conventional growers, who generally only harvest once and can go at full speed over their bare ground.
Drying and Processing
The almonds are taken to dedicated “drying greens”, areas of the farm where the almonds are left on the ground in the open for drying, prior to processing. Ian always harvests about 20 tonnes of almonds before anyone else so that his almonds can be cracked at Simarloo first, and then cleaned, graded and packed by Almondco ready for marketing by the Biodynamic Marketing Company. Once the processing of conventional almonds starts at the plants, the bulk of the harvest has to wait till they are all finished because each processing plant requires a thorough clean before certified product can be processed.
Pests and Diseases
Almonds are prone to similar problems to stone fruit, such as brown rot. 501 is sprayed on the almond trees during wet weather periods to bring more light into the plants and help prevent fungal problems. Copper is used together with summer oil (which helps control Bryobia mite) just prior to bud burst. Wettable sulphur is used later if necessary. Professionals come into the orchard periodically to monitor pest and disease levels, and they comment that the Keens have fewer problems than conventional growers.
Kangaroos can be a problem in the orchard, eating young trees, low branches, bark, leaves and almonds. They also damage sprinklers as they bound through the tree lines. Sometimes a cull is necessary when numbers build up to a troublesome level.
The biggest problem with almonds is birds. This Mallee area is home to a staggering array of beautiful parrots including Regent Parrots, Major Mitchells, Yellow Rosellas, Mallee Ringnecks, Galahs, Corellas and Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. A range of gas guns and other scarers are used, but shooting is done at times, although protected species are left strictly alone. About eight years ago, Ibis learnt how to eat almonds, and quickly told all their friends and relations far and wide!
The Keens grow a substantial acreage of oranges (mainly Valencias, Navels and Late Navels), together with some lemons and mandarins.
Conversion of citrus to Biodynamics is much more straightforward than with almonds. A similar, clover dominant pasture is established under the trees, compost applied annually, and 500 sprayed twice annually. Overhead sprinklers are used, mainly because the ground has to be kept clean by regular mowing. 501 is used on the citrus trees close to harvest to even up maturity and enhance sugar levels in the fruit. The fruit is very clean, shiny and healthy. There is no trouble with thrip, which is a big problem for conventional growers in the area, leaving a halo around the top end of the orange. Crows can be a pest, eating the oranges.
The trees are hedged mechanically, cutting the tops and sides of the trees to keep them to a manageable height and let in light and air to encourage new growth.