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Balanced trees and timing to optimise quality

Research & Extension

The 2018 APAL Future Orchards program focus on growing for quality and delivering consumers a great eating experience every time they eat an apple or pear has been one of the best-received and most successful to date.

Growing for high quality produce and delivering our consumers a great eating experience every time they eat an apple or pear is the focus of this year’s APAL’s Future Orchards™ program.

Growers recognise that delivering consistent high-quality produce is the key to inspiring purchase and arresting waning consumption.

Consumer research commissioned by APAL, and carried out by Melbourne-based The Source, found that inconsistent quality was one of the main consumer concerns and barriers to purchase.  The study found there were opportunities to drive growth through promotion of dynamic attributes such as great taste, crispness and new brands with ‘modern’ and ‘fun’ cues, but the first step to capitalising on these opportunities was to ensure quality could be consistently delivered. If growers fail to deliver this eating quality the consumer will go elsewhere.

For the June 2018 Orchard Walks, international tree physiologist Professor Stefano Musacchi from Washington State University, USA, and leading New Zealand grower Mark Ericksen, from the Waima Fruit Company in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay region, were invited to give their insights into managing for quality.  The June walks were among the most successful since the project’s inception, drawing 360 people across eight regions and indicating the high level of interest in improving quality.

Mark Ericksen is a fourth-generation apple and kiwi fruit grower who has built a strong reputation for the consistent production of high-quality produce.  Mark is a striking example of the new levels of professionalism and attention to detail required for orchard managers to be successful in this day and age.  After spending a week with Mark, it is clear when it comes to his orchard delivering quality there is very little left to chance.

In his presentations Mark highlighted the importance of timing in delivering quality.

“We need to focus on what we can control,” he said.  “One of my management principles is to really focus on timing because timing is so critical to fruit production.  We have a lot of technology available, but I am really a big person on keeping a diary.”

As an example, Mark outlined their meticulous replanting procedures carried out each year and designed to ensure that young blocks are growing consistently and reaching full production sooner.

Precision Farming has long been a key part of Mark’s business. “You can no longer rely on your gut instinct,” he said.  All of his data goes into the cloud-based orchard management tool OrchardNet® which allows users to keep track of various block production metrics, manage inputs and critical data for informed management decision making.  Access to and usage of OrchardNet is made available free of charge to Australian growers under the Future Orchards® project.

Professor Stefano Musacchi from WSU is a leading researcher in tree physiology specialising in pome fruit and orchard systems.  Stefano presented in the southern loop events and said the optimisation of fruit quality fundamentally came down to having the tree in balance. “When we have an orchard out of balance with vigour, immediately the quality will go down,” he said.

Stefano talked about the importance of pruning techniques, rootstocks, cultivar evaluation, nursery trees, orchard systems, quality parameters, optimising crop load and light interception, but said of these, the most important factor in delivering better quality was pruning

“It is number one to optimise quality in the orchard,” he said. “Pruning is not a cost, it is an investment in the quality of your orchard.”

Stefano said pruning was better defined as a “pool of practices” which modify tree growth, and was not limited to just cutting, but also included branch bending and modifying reproductive (buds and fruit) and vegetative growth (leaves and, shoots).  During the orchard walks, Stefano demonstrated that in Type 4 varieties click pruning can be used on 45o branches to remove apical dominance and divert growth into fruit buds to avoid issues of blind wood.

Stefano said orchard system choice was an important factor in quality management as not all orchard systems would deliver the same level of quality for every variety. He urged growers to use growing systems appropriate to the chosen variety.  He said in Washington State Granny Smith apples performed better when grown on an angled canopy (V-Trellis) to keep fruit away from full sun, whereas bi-coloured apples required more sunlight for colour development.  The orchard system should be compact and allow light through the canopy.

AgFirst consultants Ross Wilson and Steve Spark surveyed growers at each of the June 2018 events to understand what they thought about quality.

The following observation reflects the tone of responses received: “In our local supermarkets we often have both old and new-season Gala, Grannies and pinks at the same time, all being inedible – either green and starchy or soft and mealy.”

While the focus of the walks was what growers could do to ensure quality was developed on the tree, Ross said quality was a whole-of-supply-chain responsibility.

“This does not just go to the grower,” he said. “The quality of the apple also relies on the packer, the cool store operator the transport operator and the retailer. It’s the whole supply chain.”

Early harvesting fails the taste test

The September orchard walks continued the theme of quality and incorporated an interactive tasting exercise to enable better understanding of the impact of harvest management on eating quality.

Growers were asked to taste and rate fruit which had been harvested 7-10 days apart at timings of early, mid (commercial harvest) and late, and then commercially stored.  Fruit was removed from storage one week prior to the tasting event and panel participants were asked to submit their assessment via the PollEverywhere phone app using a 1-5 rating scale.  For each piece of the fruit they were asked to rate the texture, juiciness, sweetness, flavour, chance of purchasing again, and then provide a ranking and a comment on the fruit quality in general.

AgFirst consultant Jonathan Brookes talks quality to growers at the Shepparton Future Orchards® walk at Turnbull Orchards.

The use of PollEverywhere enabled the data to be instantly analysed and presented live.  There was a high degree of consistency as to how the sets of apples were rated within each tasting which enabled this survey to really distinguish some harvest timing-related tasting differences.

In most cases the fruit from each demonstration trial was very good, however for the sake of the exercise the participants were still asked to hone their tasting skills and were able to recognise differences not knowing anything about the apples harvest regime.

When the regional results were combined, the most consistent result was that the early-picked fruit had less sweetness, less flavour, was less juicy and was least likely to be purchased again.

There was also a preference for the texture of the mid and late-maturity apples, as the early apples were deemed too hard.  The early apples were described as being ‘too sour’, ‘too starchy’, with ‘no real flavour or aroma’, whereas the mid and late generally rated better in these tests.

Guest presenter at the September walks, Victorian grower Brad Fankhauser, of Gippsland-based Fankhauser Apples, talked of the importance of taking responsibility for quality regardless of the position in the supply chain.  Brad said that, as a vertically-integrated operation growing, packing and marketing fruit themselves, Fankhauser’s role in quality was fully transparent. The success of the business rested on delivering high and consistent quality and ensured quality was always given the highest attention whether apples were destined for retail supply chains or local markets. “We stand by our apples,” he said.

fruit quality and monitoring harvest management

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