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The Australian orchard of the future

Research & Extension

At the 2015 National Horticulture Convention, Jesse Reader convened a panel discussion titled ‘Tripling orchard profitability by 2030, can you do it?’ Here Jesse shares some key points from the discussion that highlighted features of the future Australian orchard. 

A two dimensional fruit wall.

This discussion was centred on the understanding that the landscape is evolving, with several key points supporting the need for change:

  • Australia’s somewhat unique, high cost of production.
  • The collective understanding that our labour pool, availability and associated skills are constantly shifting.
  • Our appetite for risk is changing and mitigation is front of mind.
  • The need to consistently drive higher yields of high quality fruit has never been more critical.
  • The opportunities to adopt systems and technologies to prepare us for the future are plentiful and need exploring.

The question ‘What will the Australian orchard of the future look like?’ was pitched with a 15-20 year timeframe, the need to explore various aspects of orcharding and production, and the importance of having this discussion now. Below is a summary of the panel discussion by topic, with all responses being underpinned by a vision for the future.

Yield

Panel: Craig Hornblow (AgFirst), Robert Green (Oakleigh Orchards) and Dr Ben van Hooijdonk (Plant and Food Research).

Two dimensional V trellis.

With Australia’s average apple yield lagging by international standards, the panel focused on the need to minimise variability in orchards and maximise uniformity in order to take full advantage of a block’s true potential. Uniformity within the growing system would lead to maximising light interception and resultant fruit quality. Ben led the discussion around yield potential and its direct relationship with light interception and challenged the group to increase existing canopies from 55 per cent light interception to 80 per cent for future yield improvements.

Several people involved in the discussion wanted to bring this back to ‘branch level’ targets and it was suggested that simple, carbon efficient branches (those that put their energy into fruiting not producing annual wood) have the ability to crop at 3.5 kg/m of wood.

Robert reminded everyone that on our quest for ground-breaking yields we must focus on Class 1 marketable yield, not gross yield, and to remember it’s all about profit. The audience then collectively agreed that other inputs need to increase if we are to push high yields including water, nutrients, trellis structures and netting.

With the current agreed benchmark for Pink Lady™ apples at 100 t/ha and Gala 60 t/ha, Craig said he wanted to see a 30 per cent increase across the board meaning the orchard of the future would comfortably be achieving 130 t/ha of Pinks and Gala 80 t/ha. This would see the national average sit around 45t/ha produced from all hectares, all ages. Upper quartile growers would be averaging 52 t/ha across the entire farm.

Growing systems

Panel: Craig Hornblow, Dr Ben van Hooijdonk and Mark Trzaskoma (Battunga Orchards).

The move towards efficient and productive systems will play a major role in achieving future growth and profitability targets for the industry. Articulating their characteristics and executing their design will also be critical.

The session began with a short video from Dr Terence Robinson, a well know fruit crop physiologist from the USA, explaining what attributes he thought the orchard of the future should exhibit. He stated that we need to think 20 years for each new block, aim for 2,500-3,000 trees/ha, have thin vertical canopies (1.2m) and be ready for mechanical assistance with machines such as the Wafler machine. He underpinned that final comment, however, by stating that new technology must have a positive cost benefit.

Three dimensional trees.

Craig highlighted that this wasn’t about being too prescriptive and that there were several ways to achieve the desired outcome but there are underlying principles that need to be adhered to. It was collectively agreed again that high light interception is a must but it needed to be accompanied by great light distribution through the canopy. The pressure on systems to be simple and accommodate simple rules or guidelines is a fast growing trend that the audience felt strongly about. With a strong link back to our labour force and skills availability, system design and its need for simplicity, uniformity and consistency cannot be understated.

Craig highlighted the need for narrow canopies and their associated efficiency gains. He would like to see 40cm wide canopies – those typically found on quite formal growing systems. Efficiency gains would be seen in pruning, thinning, picking and most other orchard tasks.

A narrow canopy such as described would lend itself to existing labour saving technologies including over-row sprayers, platforms and harvest assist equipment. These narrow canopies would then be machine and robot ready – a real focus for Mark. He stated that not only do future systems on his farm need to be technology ready but they need to be user friendly, productive (60km of fruiting wood), uniform and have the ability to grow large tonnages of high pack out fruit in 3-4 count sizes. The future system needs a one page user manual.

Ben is currently involved in an ‘in-field’ orchard of the future project where their growing system aims to achieve yields of 150-175 t/ha from as few as 1,800 trees/ha. Ben and his team are taking the approach of working with the tree not against it and prefers to encourage apical dominance and produce an upright branch or column of fruit. This is in contrast to most formal canopies across the world currently, where branches are laid to horizontally on wires – somewhat like cordons. Ben also highlighted the need for a system that created High Harvest Index trees i.e. quiet trees, carbon efficient – producing fruit not wood.

In summary everyone agreed that to produce high volumes of high quality fruit we need to have a rootstock and density that provides a low vigour, calm tree at maturity, with good precocity and high yield efficiency. The canopy system must be able to fill its allotted space within five years. We need a rootstock/density/tree form combination that intercepts a minimum of 65 per cent of total available light, preferably more. A canopy that also has light distribution throughout the entire canopy that is capable of colouring fruit to market specification even in the lower part of the tree. And finally, the density /canopy option must make good economic sense i.e. achieve internal rates of return of greater than 15 per cent.

Quality

Panel: Krys Lockhart (Montague Fresh), Dr Dario Stefanelli (Victorian Government) and Mark Trzaskoma.

Quality is a very subjective topic and was always going to throw up a vast array of approaches to improvement and measurement. With market expectation being a rolling ball, yields on the increase and climatic conditions always testing our skill, the need to keep up with quality standards has never been more critical. Furthermore, the apple and pear industries’ focus on increasing export, only adds weight to the importance of maintaining a clear focus on fruit quality.

The panel agreed that tasty, high quality fruit could be defined as crunchy, juicy, bruise and blemish free, low residue and above all, consistent across all varieties at all times. Selecting varieties that were grower friendly and had the inherent genetics to deliver these attributes to the market were seen as crucial. Combining these varieties with growing systems that allow the grower to maximise the product will be equally as important. Mark mentioned that we need to get ladders out of the system – too much associated bruising, we need to minimise waste at every step of the process. This was further expanded to optimising Class 1 pack out through optimal pruning, thinning, fruit placement and fruit sizing. Overwhelmingly the audience also felt that netting orchards was a must in order to grow high quality fruit.

Krys reminded us that quality is a large driver for repeat purchase, coupled with innovative and exciting branding, with an emphasis on provenance – and that if this was delivered then the industry would be well placed to grow the sector.

We shifted our discussion towards quality assessment. Dario has spent years working with non-destructive fruit quality testing and in particular the DA meter. Currently our best practice regime is to measure starch, sugar, pressure and size – the bulk of which are destructive techniques. Dario sees DA meter technology along with other non-destructive methods of assessing aspects of fruit quality to have far greater utilisation in our future orchards.

The continuation of the technology discussion led to comments around the need for further improvements in bruise detection on optically enhanced grading equipment. Infrared sorting was seen as the norm for the future and the use of QR codes so the consumer could track provenance would become more prevalent.

The summary of the discussion looked into communication and the importance of knowing what the consumer wants and being able to deliver that consistently and in a timely manner. The Zespri®Kiwifruit model was referred to in relation to working with the retailer not against them and keeping the dialogue relevant and regular. Ultimately the growers needed to take responsibility right through to the consumer where possible and play an active role in that process.

Cost of production

Panel: Kevin Sanders (Sanders Orchard), Craig Hornblow and Robert Green.

When it all boils down, the cost of orcharding in Australia is huge. Whether it be wage rates, the need for netting or simply the cost of water – the cost of production ‘down under’ is significant by global standards. If you don’t know and fully understand your cost of production, orcharding into the future for many, will be very short lived. Several factors influencing the cost of production were discussed but our aim was to dive further into the key areas.

Rob immediately stated that it’s more about the three P’s than cost control – Production, Pack Out and Price. He went on to say that production and pack out can be controlled to a large extent by the grower and price is often (but not always) a result of one and two. He stressed that the revenue line is the key but acknowledged that costs must be managed and that growing systems can have a large influence in this space.

Craig highlighted that if we are to influence our cost of production we need to look at increasing marketable yield to drive down costs per marketable kilogram. He stressed it’s about understanding your costs and where they lie but ultimately it’s about margin, not the costs specifically. That said, around 50 per cent of costs are labour and 50 per cent of that labour cost is harvest, so there is a direct need and focus within this area to manage costs.

Technology is beginning to assist with cost management, however a simple growing system needs to be in place first that ensures the efficiency gains can be exploited with mechanical assistance. Simple systems allow for platform use, over-row spray units and so on – but be mindful that they often can increase our labour pool but not always reduce the overall cost of production.

Our focus shifted towards the post-harvest arena and Kevin noted that in managing our cost of production we need to also understand that our post-harvest costs are at least as high as our on-orchard costs, therefore post-harvest efficiency and value maximisation are critical. Kevin noted the best way to influence the post-harvest cost is to deliver high Class 1 pack out fruit to the shed. Time spent handling fruit that will return sub-COP returns is a double kick.

Risk

Panel: Stephen Tancred (Orchard Services), Dr Steve McArtney (Valent BioSciences Corporation) and Dr Rebecca Darbyshire (Melbourne University).

Harvesting apples using a platform at night can be beneficial to pickers and orchard management.

I often refer to growers as professional gamblers, they are a smart and passionate group but obviously have the constitution to handle risk. The risk appetite will be different for every grower due to their financial position, growing region, preferred market and above all their DNA. Risk comes in many forms including labour risk, environmental risk and political risk to name a few.

The final session began with a video of Fuji being harvested at night on a platform in Washington State. To me, the video nicely framed how several areas of risk were collectively being managed by the use of a platform at night:

  1. Labour – maximising labour during a busy period and getting the fruit off in a timely manner in order to get to the next variety.
  2. Maturity – getting the fruit off in the desired maturity window by adding an extra 10 hours a day of harvest. LED lights on the harvester were also improving colour picking.
  3. Heat – night harvest provided the opportunity to pick in a cooler part of the day and also not straight after the evaporative cooling was turned off – which can cause bruising.

Stephen outlined several key areas of risk that growers have to manage including casual labour supply, political risk in the form of policy change but also the need for constant pest, disease and nutritional risk management.

Rebecca highlighted the unquestionable need to mitigate against climate related risk in Australian orchards. Hail, frost, water shortage, high summer temperatures were all collectively seen as areas of high risk that need constant attention. The audience agreed that netting and overhead cooling will become more prevalent in newly established blocks.

Steve made several strong points around consumer risk. His experience from working in the US suggests that under no circumstances can you afford to lose consumer trust. Quality Assurance systems will become more and more critical into the future in order to manage health risk and other unexpected challenges to our industry.

Being a such a diverse topic and an industry that is immersed in risk, many other areas were floated for debate including future chemical supply and access, poor family succession, trellis structure failure and varietal choice – is the biggest risk not making a decision?

Summary

We operate in a very dynamic industry where rapid change is one of the only things we can rely on and the need for regular discussion to assist with preparedness for the future is always going to be critical. As we find solutions to existing problems we will always raise further questions along the journey and that is why these coordinated forums continue to be a very effective part of the process.

It was an extremely well attended and rewarding session for all participants. I would encourage APAL to continue this process in the future and for the industry at large to vote with their feet and support these events. It was a pleasure to be front and centre and I hope this session has invigorated the participants and the readers of this article.

About the author

Jesse Reader, Horticultural Consultant, AgFirst Australia, jesse.reader@agfirstaustralia.com.au, 0419 107 245.

For more information on night harvesting watch this short video about managing the risk of maturity and labour crunch. 

Tagged:
Fruit quality and monitoring Future Orchards orchard design and density

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