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Driving change in your orchard

Business Management

Smarter orchards will harness technology, data and the latest research findings to be more efficient and profitable into the future, attendees at the APAL R&D Day in Melbourne on Thursday 1 September were told.

With costs rising and current pricing unsustainable, the packed program, attended by more than 100 people from all growing regions, was firmly focused on how to grow more efficiently, reduce reliance on costly labour and make use of available data to better inform decisions.

The orchard economics-focused two-day event included an orchard tour and visit to Montague’s new packing facility on the Friday and followed the consumer and market-development focused APAL Forum earlier in the year.

Smarter orchards

Costa Group’s Jesse Reader, Battunga Orchards Manager Mark Trzaskoma and leading stonefruit grower Gaethan Cutri (Cutri Fruit) were sharply focused on efficiency gains in the insights they shared on what they look for in agtech to ensure the biggest return from the investment.

Key points were:

  • Start by identifying the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Accept you may need to try a number of options to find the best fit for your business.
  • Focus on options that simplify processes, reduce labour and are simple to implement.
  • Focus on areas that make you money, such as fruit quality (size, colour and packout).
  • Involve and engage staff in the adoption process for greater ‘buy in’.
  • Ensure you have access to service and spare parts.

First and foremost, understand your costs – whether per hectare, per block, per tree or per bin.

Jesse said there were signs globally that investment in robotic harvesting was tapering off due to the long return on investment time frame.

All three agreed the labour efficiency and quality gains to be had from the mechanisation possible in ‘robot ready’ 2D systems more than justified the changeover, whether the robots arrived sooner or later.

Gaethan said simply moving to mechanical thinning had reduced labour requirements from 360 to 200 hours per hectare with an ‘amazing’ impact on profit per tree.

“At $35/hr, that equates to a saving of $5,600/ha,” he said.

An Eclairvale thinner used on plums after fruit set was delivering similar or better cost savings.

Installing an automated irrigation system had also been a ‘game-changer’ for the Victorian stonefruit operation, reducing water usage from 9ML/ha to 5ML/ha while also reducing tree vigour and improving fruit quality.

An early adopter of 2D systems and mechanisation at Battunga Orchards, Mark said introducing and adapting machinery had improved efficiency and reduced labour costs.

He said technology was not always the solution and the shift to the higher-yielding – ‘we can comfortably grow over 90 tonnes [per ha] every year’ – 2D systems would be important for maintaining viability, particularly in marginal varieties.

“Sometimes we have to go back and look at the canopies,” Mark said. “When the Australian average was 27t/ha, 60t looked good, but Australian averages are creeping up and now 80 is the new 60.”

Mark said tracking financial data to better inform decisions was a key focus at Battunga Orchards and he sees automated data capture as a pivotal future tool.

“When we were on Excel we didn’t get the actual cost to grow a bin of fruit until three or four months after we started selling them,” Mark said. “Now we’ve moved to an app, our workers push a button for whatever job they are doing. It’s all live. We know as soon as they’ve finished a job exactly what it is costing us to grow the fruit in each block.

“The next thing I’m quite excited about is automated data capture. We are paying people to count before we start thinning, to count behind the thinning platforms and we’re measuring fruit weekly. I’m looking forward to when I can just bolt one of these machines to the tractor when it is spraying. I think they’ll be pivotal for not just growing, but marketing. If you’ve got accurate fruit size and counts for every block and every row, you know what to sell first, or last.”

Other technology tipped as worth considering by the panel, joined by Ardmona orchardist and Fruit Growers Victoria Chairman Mitchell McNab, were:

  • vision systems for identifying and managing block variability
  • autonomous tractors for taking over repetitive tasks.

On the wish list were:

  • variable rate spraying
  • better integration between the many different systems
  • at retail level, improved quality control to prevent poor eating experiences impacting sales.

Benchmarking and business costs

AgFirst’s Ross Wilson and WA grower and APAL Director Mark Scott both highlighted the value of benchmarking to identify opportunities for improving business performance.

Ross presented the Orchard Business Analysis (OBA) data on industry performance up to 2021. The OBA reports key measures including yield, packout, income, labour and post-harvest costs and profit/loss per hectare for a representative ‘model’ orchard using real data from 24 businesses nationwide.

In 2021 rapidly rising labour and input costs combined with lower market returns to deliver the lowest returns in the past six to seven years of analysis and a loss-making year for the model orchard.

Ross said there was a wide variation around the ‘average’ and growers could compare their own orchard data against the orchard and variety performance data in the report to identify areas for improvement by lifting productivity, packout and, where possible, price.

“You can see in 2021 being average was not good enough,” he said. “You must aim for the upper quartile. Know your numbers at both business and block level. Only grow varieties and blocks that are likely to have a margin, the rest are just pulling you down.”

Mark said an eye-opener from participation in the WA Building Horticultural Business Capacity program had been how little difference in costs and price received there was between the top and bottom performers.

Armed with a better understanding of cost of production by the process, he had shared this with his packers and marketers to improve transparency around the price he needed to receive for his fruit.

Note: the Orchard Business Analysis report is available to growers only. To receive a copy, please contact Rose Daniel.

Sustainability and market access

The New Zealand apple industry has set itself a target of zero sprays by 2050 as part of a new Sustainability Project aimed at building NZ’s reputation as producers of safe, environmentally produced apples, providing a market access advantage into regions with low tolerance for residues or pests and disease and strengthening orchard sustainability through greater biodiversity.

Rachel Kilmister, R&D Manager at New Zealand Apples and Pears, said reliance on sprays would be reduced through a mix of new disease-resistant cultivars, the deployment of smart tech, such as remote sensing for real time detection, and development of new disruption technology.

Also on market access, Dave Rumbold, NuFarm, flagged forthcoming European registration reviews of a range of chemicals important to industry and options for maintaining market access.


Hort Innovation Marketing Manager Anna Tu outlined the current marketing campaign aimed at growing consumer demand and activities, including:

  • building reconsideration of apples as a snack, through emphasis on taste and enjoyment in marketing
  • instore communications on different variety characteristics to inform better choices
  • working with retailers on merchandising to improve customer experience, extend knowledge and feed back data to industry.


agtech consumers Future Business Future Orchards industry data machinery and mechanisation marketing technology and robotics

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