Wild weather events that can damage crops, such as the hail storms that hit Victorian and South Australian fruit growers last year, highlight the importance of protecting fruit trees with netting.
Thirteen years ago Michael Cunial decided he’d had enough of losing crops to hail damage in his Orange, NSW, orchard and he wanted to do something to address it.
The third-generation orchardist considered structured net and found it was too expensive and there were too many failures, so the idea of simply putting a net on the trees (without posts or wires) came to him.
The next step was to source netting and see if the idea worked. Michael obtained different types of sample nets from China and trialled them for two years. He was so impressed by the results that he netted most of the trees in production the following year and established the business Drape Net to sell net to other fruit growers.
In the years since then he has improved the product and grown a loyal client base of fruit growers both in Australia, and more recently, overseas.
The orchard netting supplier said that while avoiding hail damage might be the primary reason many growers installed netting, his clients had found other benefits (including protection from sunburn, birds, bats, wind and even insects) also helped their bottom lines.
To net or not to net
Michael said his research indicated about 10 per cent of Australian apple production was protected by nets and that segment was growing.
“People are putting more and more money into growing fruit, and netting can insure your income.”
He said some club varieties must be netted because the club owner or manager wanted to ensure quality and quantity.
He said the importance of netting was highlighted when a hail storm in South Australia in October “pretty much wiped out” a variety.
“There’s not much netting in South Australia. I can understand why some people don’t want to net, but it’s getting to the point where you can’t afford not to net.
“There’s nothing worse than packing hail-damaged apples, you know. There is nothing worse.”
In the aftermath of the hail storms that hit Adelaide Hills growers on 30 October, Susie Green of the Apple and Pear Growers Association of South Australia (APGASA) said a damage assessment across the region showed hail hit more than 95 per cent of growers, with significant damage and high losses on many blocks.
The damage assessment, carried out in conjunction with Lenswood Co-operative and E.E. Muir & Sons, found blocks that were under hail net typically showed much lower levels of damage.
But of the approximately 810ha of apples and 110ha of pears under production in the Adelaide Hills, only about 132ha was under net (of which 120ha was closed).
The assessment found damage under net varied from ‘none’ to ‘significant’, depending on the netting type, variety and location.
Despite the benefits of netting being well-known, Michael has found getting orchardists to change their practices is hard. He says this is the case across different industries, and people being stuck in their ways was the biggest hurdle to them taking up nets.
One way he suggests overcoming this is by starting small.
“If you don’t want to jump in head-first, just do a row; do 100m and see what the difference is.
“It’s taking the future into your hands. It’s insuring your income and taking that into your own hands.”
Experience drives quality
Since Michael established Drape Net, the business has grown from selling one or two containers’ worth of netting when he started to 35 last year. Most of this is sold to Australian and New Zealand growers, with a couple of containers each going to the United States and South Africa.
The business has also grown to include two more staff and Michael has taken on a manager to run the orchard where he grows apples and cherries.
“Of course, I’ve kept my hand in on the orchard side of things. Once orcharding is in your blood its hard to get out,” he said.
While the idea of having a physical barrier to protect fruit from hail, birds, bats, wind, insects and sun immediately proved itself worthwhile, growing the business was not without hurdles.
Michael said early on they received a couple of batches of bad netting and he still had to replace that.
“As I say to a lot of customers ‘You guys get to learn from my mistakes’.”
The team pays close attention to quality assurance and is helped by Eric Laurenson, who has 35 years’ experience in net manufacturing around the globe.
Drape Net is made from high-density polyethylene and contains UV inhibitors. The net has been tweaked over the years to be even stronger. It is made by one of China’s biggest netting manufacturers, representatives from which recently visited Michael’s orchard.
“We’ve sourced the best we possibly can for the price point that we’re at.”
A lot of the netting is sent directly from China to Michael’s customers but in other instances it is sent to Drape Net’s office, also in Orange, and then forwarded on to individual orchards.
“Anyone can just go on the internet and find net but it’s a little bit more involved than that – quality is a very big thing out of China so we have to really keep our finger on the pulse there.
“We’re also big enough now to put the pressure down on pricing as well.”
Innovation has continued to be a pillar of the business. For example, Michael worked with Crendon Machinery in Western Australia to refine the NetWizz, a netting applicator and retriever.
“There are other machines out there but the NetWizz is the best machine, and the modifications we’ve done have probably, over the years, made it about 10 per cent quicker.”
The time it takes to put up (usually when blossoming finishes) and retrieve the net depends on the block itself (for example, the straightness of its rows and whether there are rogue limbs etc) and operator experience and skill.
“Five people can put on 5ha a day on what you’d call ‘perfect’ rows, and taking it off is slightly quicker.”
Drape Net versus structured net
Michael said in many cases the weakest part of structured net was the structure – for example, it might be where hail might pocket or where the load exerted strain on anchoring points.
“There’s a lot of engineering involved with successful structured nets, whereas with Drape Net just being over the tree there aren’t those weak spots.
“In our 13 years’ experience, in every severe weather event Drape Nets out-performed structural nets.”
He said some of the other advantages were that netting became an in-house job and orchardists could change which trees they netted.
“You’re taking your tree crop protection into your own hands to a certain degree,” Michael said.
He said the worst things for net were “UV degradation and the orchardist”.
“A lot of guys, if they don’t store it inside the shed, just leave it on the end of the rail for six months of the year. That’s really going to halve the life of it.
“But I’m looking out of the window at 13-year-old nets – some of our original netting – and it’s still perfect.
“Our 13-year-old net has been tucked up in a shed for six to eight months of the year before it is put back out. But we also have a system where we put end-caps on the net and wrap it in black UV-blocking shrink wrap plastic so it can be stored outside without UV getting to it while it’s not in use.”
Michael said many of his clients had 10-year-old net they were still using every year, and he suggested people weigh up the costs and benefits based on 10 years of use.
“Then anything over that is a bonus, but I’ve had customers say the net paid for itself in about 20 seconds.”
One limiting factor of Drape Net is whether the NetWizz machine can get into the block and down rows 4.5m high. Because Drape Net physically restricts the tree, it can stop the growth of young trees.
“We’ve come up with some ideas to alleviate that concern as well,” Michael said.
In late 2017 he patented a new growing system for young trees. It uses upside-down ‘bull horns’ on the tops of vertical wall trellises. From the bull horns, posting wire is tied on which a side curtain is mounted, allowing the net to be pulled up and down quickly without the use of a machine.
“It adds what we can see as the benefits of Drape Net compared to structured net into our trellis system and allows those benefits to be spread to young trees.”
Michael said being an orchardist himself and doing work that saw him visit a lot of other orchards meant he saw many trellis systems.
“This new system, I think, counteracts a lot of the negatives or weaknesses in other systems.”
He is trialling the new growing system in his own orchard.
“I’ve for so long been anti structure but now I’m sort of getting into my own version of structure. We’ve put about four years R&D into this to this point in bringing it out.”
Michael said he also wanted to expand the technology to be used on cherries.
Casting a wider net
Michael is excited to take Drape Net Curtains to market.
He said much of its business growth had been thanks to word of mouth and targeted advertising.
“I tend to let the growers come to me. I mean, it was a grower who pointed out to me that it was working so well on codling moths in apples,” he said.
“And that’s been a big benefit with organic growers, including in New Zealand.”
The team started exporting Drape Net about three years ago, initially into New Zealand.
“We’ve buddied up with New Zealand’s biggest agri-retailer, PGG Wrightson, and a division of it, Fruitfed Supplies,” Michael said.
“Since then we’ve signed distribution agreements in America and South Africa.”
The American distributor has placed orders for its first year and Michael said they were already close to the volume of Drape Net normally sold in Australia each year.
“And in South Africa it’s on the tree now so we’re expecting good results,” he added.
Michael said having his Australian fruit-growing peers believe in, and buy, the product and tell him how well it worked was more important to him than opening export markets.
“I’ve had guys in my office telling me if it wasn’t for Drape Net they’d be selling their places. I wouldn’t be doing it just for the love of it, but those sort of things, they’re really a big buzz for me.”