In August, APAL’s Technical Manager, Angus Crawford, led a group of Australian growers on a trip through the apple and pear growing regions of Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands to meet with local growers and learn more about their businesses.
Throughout the 10 day tour growers interacted with leading university researchers, consultants, fruit growers and nurseries in many different regions to see the new technologies and innovations being made or trialled.
In this article I will try to capture the activities of the trip which took us to see many growers, research centres, processing sites, breeders and nurseries.
The tour began in Ferrara, Italy, and toured part of the Po Valley where we met progressive researchers, Professor Luca Corelli Grapadelli and Dr Luigi Manfrini from the University of Bologna. It is a warm region, but this season we saw that most of Italy was facing a poor colouring year due to heat. Interestingly, the orchards in the Po Valley are below sea level on land reclaimed from the Adriatic Sea. This has led to very nutrient rich soils, but generates excess vigour in the apples.
We were introduced to Michele Manfrini who is a consultant for the local consortia. Fuji is a variety which the region has a competitive advantage over other regions. Michele highlighted the need to set growing systems that suit the growth habit of the variety, for instance vigorous varieties such as Fuji are commonly grown on a wider spacing to allow the tree to spread out.
Managing the risk of biennial bearing in Fuji is a priority and Michele caps the production from fourth leaf at about 50 tonnes per hectare because going above this is risky.
After viewing some more blocks, we toured an apple orchard owned by the Mazzoni Group who have activities in research and development, nurseries, production and distribution. Varieties they are responsible for include Modi®, Rubens® and Isaaq®.
Many years ago, the Mazzoni Group patented the Bibaum® system where trees develop two leaders in a ‘V’ shape parallel to the row. The Bibaum patent refers to the process at the nursery level and over many years the execution has been perfected, resulting in the two leaders growing more evenly and one leader not being dominated by the other.
Virtually all of the new plantings we saw by the Mazzoni Group were Bibaum and from their point of view the main advantages described were better vigour control, a more balanced tree, fewer trees are needed reducing the number of trees, and better fruit quality. These plantings were of Pink Lady® (Rosy Glow) at 3.3m x 1.2m and producing 80 tonnes/ha.
During this section of the trip we were joined by consultants from HK Consulting who have developed predictive modelling software for fruit production to generate useful benchmarking information. These models are based on many years of research with data from the University of Bologna and other reputable sources. Now used in multiple countries, the uptake of this new software is growing.
We then went to South Tyrol where apple growers have stayed competitive due to modernising their orchard systems. Nearly all of the farms have a platform for thinning, pruning, tree training and it was mentioned that half of the industry also use platforms for harvesting.
A highlight of the trip was a visit to the renowned pomology expert Dr Alberto Dorigoni at a research farm in Mezzolombardo, in South Tyrol. We walked through several established orchard systems trials including ones on the fruiting wall which are canopies that are mechanically pruned and thinned.
In many ways the fruiting wall is very similar to the two dimensional (2D) canopies because both tend to be very narrow and flat. The main difference is that the 2D is a horizontal system, trained to a wire, which looks very neat, but in order to stay this way it must be managed well. The fruiting wall is more vertical and allows for more flexibility and fits better with the natural growth of the tree.
The performance of the fruit wall changes under growing different primary structures, that is, spindle (one axis), Bibaum (two-axis), three-axis and four axis all on M9 rootstock. We observed that Bibaum tended to be the best for diverting vigour and setting up a canopy most suitable for the fruiting wall.
Spraying and netting
South Tyrol with 18,500 hectares of apples makes this the most concentrated apple area in the world. The Italian industry, along with most of Europe, are moving towards more environmentally friendly techniques where they use less chemicals. This has resulted in better management in many regards, particularly with wider adoption of drift reducing sprayers and tunnel sprayers which saves 40 per cent of chemicals and manages a huge amount of spray drift.
Research in Europe is partly directed to this general area of chemical reduction and drift management. On Dorigoni’s research farm we observed solid set canopy spraying trials as well as research on what were called multi-purpose nets which suit a narrow canopy. The multi-purpose nets are a type of Drape Net® to protect the tree from hail, rain, to reduce blackspot, prevent codling moth and also to create shading and restrict pollination for thinning. An additional feature is the pull down string where the net can be easily raised just like a blind to gain access.
In more recent years, growers have started using this type netting for thinning where closing the net at certain stages of flowering prevents bees from accessing and pollinating the flowers. They also provide additional shading effects which, in combination, cause significant abscission of flowers. These are comparable with thinning treatments of three applications of ammonium thiosulphate (ATS) followed by 6-benzyladenine (6-BA).
The normal timing was at 50 per cent flowering but later stages at 70 per cent still gave a result and it works particularly well in Fuji. At the very early closure and the 20 per cent timing, the number of seeds was reduced, but at 50 per cent there was still a normal number of seeds per fruit.
These small research demonstration farms were common and provided invaluable learning throughout the tour for orchard systems and new varieties. In South Tyrol, apples and pears are sold mostly through two major cooperatives – VIP and VOG. In these cooperatives it is up to them to decide what varieties are planted and which ones are not.
To look at this, we met with Marcus Bradlwater who is in charge of the SK Variety Innovation Consortium which is the variety arm of VIP and VOG. Their purpose is to find and make recommendations on new varieties and the process of choosing a variety takes about seven years.
During this time the potential variety is extensively tested for suitability and marketability. So a number of sites are used. We heard about a number of new varieties as well as varieties no one had heard of which are already, supposedly, in Australia’s quarantine system.
Still in South Tyrol we visited the Laimburg Research Centre where we saw mostly new varieties, new rootstocks and some post-harvest research that was underway. Here we met Dr Walter Guerra who is in pomology and a variety specialist. Walter showed us rootstocks CG11 (Cornell Geneva) which, in his opinion, appeared the most promising with good horizontal branching, superior replant tolerance and a nice clean trunk with no signs of burr knotting. CG11 has dwarfing characteristics similar to an M26. Likewise CG41, which has similar dwarfing to M9, also appeared promising, except at the nursery level it is difficult to propagate, although this can be managed.
With the mounting pressure on residues and overall aim to reduce chemical usage, more varieties with blackspot resistance are being planted. These older lines of resistant apples tended to lack in quality however newer varieties such as Modi are gaining a strong presence in the market place.
From Italy we travelled to Belgium and the Netherlands where pears are the most important crop with the dominant variety Conference representing 70 per cent of their production. While Conference pears have the competitive advantage, the area planted to apple production is decreasing due to lower prices and returns compared with pears. Growers have little interest in the club variety system and even varieties bred in their own country, such as Kanzi® and Greenstar® from better3fruit, have had poor uptake.
In Belgium we visited another research farm, the Research Center of Fruit Growing of PC Fruit, where extensive areas of research are undertaken in variety testing, growth control, crop regulation, planting systems, fertilisation and replant disease.
We were hosted by Dr Jef Vercammen and Dr Tom Deckers who took us though the centre and out for some farm visits. We looked at new varieties of apples and pears where detailed independent testing occurs and growers are invited onto the centre for field days.
One pear variety they are particularly interested in is Celina®, which apart from the flavour, has a very nice red appearance. This was regarded as superior to other red varieties of pear that can often end up with more of a brown/red appearance. We were told that is has early maturity, crops very well, reaches production quickly, and is suitable to all pear-growing countries.
On the research farm we came across a trial where the growers were running their own orchard systems experiment for pears. Several grower groups were formed at the station and the groups regularly visit to prune and train the trees to their unique system. The growers are competing to produce a system which gives the best productive performance based on the criteria.
In the Netherlands, we saw more and more Conference pears, which is what they are really good at producing, however, we were relieved at the end to see a young 16 hectare block of Kanzi apples. A very enthusiastic and knowledgeable consultant from Fruit consult, Rene Albers, took us through the details and shared the numbers and inputs that have gone into this block. It was a good example of the newer orchards being set up for multi-row spraying.
This busy tour covered many more things than I have mentioned here, including nurseries and grower visits. A much larger, more detailed report with my full notes is available on request.
Created with flickr slideshow.