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Emerging stronger: Overcoming the challenges of growing

Industry Best Practice

Overcoming setbacks is a tool-of-trade in horticulture but turning them to your advantage can make all the difference between ‘survive’ and ‘thrive’. What steps are growers taking to emerge stronger from this year’s events?

Alison Barber and Tim McGlone speak to those who have had to overcome their fair share of challenges in recent times.

Ian Cathels, Ardrossan Orchards: Ardrossan sets sights on new growth

Two steel tanks are already replacing the concrete one lost at Ardrossan Orchards in the devastating January Batlow bushfires, as orchardist Ian Cathels takes steps to fire-proof his water supply. The tanks will double the storage capacity, but more importantly the water from them will be gravity fed to ensure water is still available if power and pumps cut out.

“If you’ve got gravity feed you have secure water,” Ian said.

Securing water is the first green shoot of a regrowth strategy Ian plans to implement to ensure the business emerges stronger from the fires that burnt through Batlow on 4 January, is better able to be defended against future fires and is also best positioned to continue to grow quality fruit profitably into the future. Ardrossan lost 20-30 per cent of its Woodburn orchard (up to 20,000 trees) in the Batlow fires that burnt through from adjacent State Forest to their west. Heartbreakingly, more than 800 head of sheep and 100 head of cattle either died or had to be put down and were buried in the days after the fire.

“You can look at a dead tree and know you can plant another, but burying the animals, that was the hardest,” Ian said.

“We had great support from outside, friends of my son’s, that was so fantastic.” While actions in the days that followed were dictated by emergency responses – burying stock, continuing the blackberry harvesting, restoring fences, thinning affected blocks to lighten crop load and getting irrigation working again – Ian said the focus was now firmly on strengthening the business he has run for 35 years and planning for the future.

“The incentive is to keep on doing what we are doing,” he said.

“Fire or not, whenever there is new development, we look at how we can improve things. In 35 years I have actually changed everything my father has done. When my father started he had 500 trees to the hectare, now ours is 4000+/ha.

“We are adjusting the design of our orchards all the time, assessing how its working, what trellising gives the best results, what netting to use.”

Grants announced by the New South Wales Government in late May of $120,000/ha to be matched by grower contributions allowed Ardrossan to start on the bigger picture planning.

“It isn’t something we can start next year as it will be two to three years before we can get the trees to even start planting,” Ian said.

“But we will be planning our orchards to suit picking platforms.”

This was followed as AFG went to press at the end of June with the Federal Government announcement of $31m of funding, also matching, to support recovery of fire-impacted growers in both NSW and SA, with details to follow.

“It’s hard to structure yourself when you have had so much damage until you know exactly what support you’ll get,” Ian said.

“You can’t do it without support, or only very, very slowly.”

In the short term they will ‘set themselves up a lot better’ with better fire-fighting equipment, more planning, bigger buffer zones and a cleaner orchard.

“We learnt that a lot of the things we already have on farm, with a bit of adjustment, can be used to fight fire,” he said.

“Probably the most useful thing was the slip-on fire units for putting on the back of utilities as they were quick to get to the fire.

“Blocks to be replanted will be set further back from the road away from fuel loads that are outside our boundary. The orchards acted as a buffer. In affected blocks the first 50m of trees are cooked by radiant heat coming off the roadside, the rest is affected with the fire more running beneath the trees, and with the irrigation all lifted off the ground the damage is not too bad.”

Left to defend town and property with family and neighbours after Batlow was declared undefendable by the NSW Rural Fire Services, Ian said he had learnt the importance of preparedness and self-reliance. “We lost a lot, but we saved a lot too,” he said.

“Have a game plan, educate your staff on where things are and how they work and don’t wait until a few days before, do it a year before.”

– Alison Barber

Ian Cathels and daughter Nicole

Matt Lenne, Calimna Orchard:Tree returns must justify water cost

Matt Lenne

Matt Lenne will be looking very closely at what he has spent on water and the return on each individual block and variety on his Goulburn Valley-based Calimna Orchard as he heads into next season.

“You need to make sure you are watering trees that can afford to be watered,” he said.

“What is the impact of the water price on the gross margin of the block? Can your trees create enough income to pay for the increasing cost of water and other associated growing costs?”

A warming climate and a downhill trend in autumn and winter rainfall in south east Australia are putting long term pressure on water availability in the Victoria’s ‘fruit bowl’ which produces half the country’s apples and around 90 per cent of its pears. Pressure on water availability drives up water prices and the cost of production and – if growers cannot sell fruit for higher prices – reduces profitability. A dry year in the Goulburn Valley drove allocation water prices up 60-100 per cent.  Seasons vary, but the 2019–20 season was dry and final allocations fell short of full entitlement on both the Goulburn (final allocation 80 per cent) and the Murray (66 per cent) forcing irrigators into the market to top up. Seasonal water prices in the Greater Goulburn zone started the season at $620/megalitre (ML) and did not drop below $500/ML until well into harvest, a good 60-100 per cent higher than the previous year and a whopping 400 per cent higher than than the $100–120/ML in the two years prior to that. By January, growers were valuing rainfall in the tens of thousands saved on watering. Apple and pear prices meanwhile remained largely unchanged offering no way of recovering the increased cost of production.

Matt said the increases made some blocks unprofitable and in hindsight, it would have been more cost effective to remove one or two lower performing marginal blocks.

“If I’d picked it right, I might have done things differently,” he said.

“But once you have pruned and sprayed, you’re committed, and you’ve got to keep going.

“It was a relatively dry season. There was greater demand for irrigating crops and with less than full allocation, there was an increase in the number of growers entering the allocation water market. With more pressure on supply, it drove up the price of allocation water.”

Good autumn rain has underpinned a more positive outlook for allocations in 2020–21 but with the trend for warmer, drier seasons, Matt said planning profitable orchards that could pay for water was vital.

“It’s about planning for a drier future and planting varieties more likely to deliver higher prices, with higher packouts and yields,” he said.

“And of course, if the decision to remove a block is to be made, you have to have the data to make that decision. It is essential to know the costs associated with each individual block.” – Alison Barber

Brett Squibb, R.W Squibb and Sons Orchards Secure market access and labour supply

Brett Squibb

Brett Squibb and his family run R.W Squibb and Sons Orchards in Spreyton, Tasmania, in the very north of the state. Two years ago, they had to negotiate harvest from within a control zone imposed to manage the fruit fly incursion, this year COVID-19 restrictions added additional complexity to harvest labour sourcing.

“Being in a control zone, once we were done in the packhouse, we then had to put the fruit back into a cold sterile storage which was under three degrees, making sure we recorded the temperature every hour for 16 days,” Brett said.

“We did a heap of extra work back then, but what we did worked. We were able to control the incursion at the time which meant we could move the apples, but Tasmania has been fruit-fly free for 18 months now, so it worked in terms of future proofing as well.”

Brett said the shortage of backpackers this year did mean the business was able to employ locals who are out of work, helping out the local community and expanding future labour sources.

“I supposed that’s one thing we have been able to do, being able to do our little bit for people in the community,” Brett said.

“There weren’t the backpackers available this year, usually its about 80 per cent backpackers and 20 per cent from locals, this year it’s been the other way around, about 80 per cent locals and 20 per cent backpackers.

“There’s been mums, younger guys, a bit of a mix of everyone. Those that have been laid off, or doing it tough, we’ve been able to help them out with a bit of work.

“When times are tough you’ve got to do what you can do, what goes around comes around, I guess.”

When speaking of collective resilience, governance forms a crucial part of the link Tasmania’s growing regions have recorded good rainfall in recent years, but Brett noted that regardless of how much falls from the sky, ensuring it is distributed evenly is just as essential.

“We’ve had a fair bit of rain here but it all came in three rainfalls really, but we’re not complaining.

“Obviously water is expensive, we’re thankful for the irrigation scheme down here that distributes it evenly. Having good government is always something that always helps in a difficult time.

“In the end, we’ll keep doing what we can do and soldiering on.”

– Tim McGlone

Ash Green, SE Green & Sons: Focus on output and have a plan

Image credit: Adelaide Advertiser

For Ash Green, a fifth-generation farmer in the Adelaide Hills, the setbacks have come in a variety of forms in recent years.

“I think the biggest thing that I’d say is whether it’s hail or drought or fires or whatever, you have to come up with a plan,” Ash said.

“You have to have your staff, your bank, your business partners, absolutely everyone on board, and then move forward with that plan. “It wasn’t easy, but when we did the plan we knew where we were going, and what we were doing.

“Having good financial systems, being able to measure each crop in terms of value, that was important as well.”

From debilitating hail three years in a row, to narrowly dodging bushfires this year, it’s been a tricky run for Ash and brothers Brenton and Darcy. Taking the first step is often the most difficult,
and this was the case for the Greens. When the hail came in the 2016–17 harvest, the Green family had the difficult decision of whether to get rid of the remaining crops, or to try and salvage
some of what was left. Ash said after the initial shock from the hail subsided, they decided to move ahead by making business decisions focused on output.

“We’ve had pretty bad hail three years in a row,” he said.

“We looked around in 2016–17 and others were keen to spray theirs off, but we decided togrow the crops, see what we could do in getting some value out of what was there.”

Ensuring staff were kept on was a priority, even at the risk of immediate financial strain. This was countered by a focus on staff only doing tasks that would directly result in financial outcome.

“We were able to keep all of our key staff through all of this. The thought of having to rebuild without their knowledge, build from the ground up without them, just wasn’t an option,” Ash said.

“We had minimal inputs, and just focused all our labour on production. You have to forget about
the one-percenters and just worry about getting
bang for our buck.
“No one was cleaning machinery or anything like that, no one was doing anything unless it was adding direct value to the business.”

Some difficult years have followed, but Ash is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. “In 2018 it wasn’t quite as bad, although there was still a lot of hail and we were obviously dealing with the year before.

“This year we’ve had to sell off some land, which wasn’t popular, but it’s what we had to do to get the banks on board, which was a part of our plan in the beginning. In terms of fruit, we’re about 20 per cent down, but we’re okay.

“What we’ve got is a good crop, some good stock in the cool room, we’re looking forward to this year.

“The other thing I’d say, we’ve had about four years where the mentality has just been survival, that’s been our sole focus. This year we’re talking about moving forward finally, about profitability and things like that.

“We’ve come through the other side”.

– Tim McGlone

Angus Ferrier, Granite Belt Growers Association: Water security must come first

The first step for growers in the drought-stricken Granite Belt region of southern Queensland looking to secure businesses into the future is water security, starting with securing government rebates for emergency water carting. The Granite Belt covers 800,000 ha including the premier apple producing town of Stanthorpe where long-running drought has left local storages
empty and growers incurring unsustainable costs to cart water in just to keep orchards alive. There are over 50 apple orchards in the area, represented locally by the two-year-old horticultural growers’ organisation the Granite Belt Growers Association.

Association president Angus Ferrier says a long-term drought is as damaging as any natural disaster, and at $17,500 per megalitre, the costs of carting water are too much to allow orchards to
run efficiently. “Funding for water carting rebates is the first item on our short-term agenda,” he said. “Our growers have done the right thing in developing orchards commensurate with the historic levels of rainfall seen in their region. “Unfortunately, this drought has redefined how we see water reliability and usage.”

While addressing the short-term issue of unsustainable carting costs is critical, the Granite Belt growers are also taking steps to safeguard their water security for years to come. Lobbying for funding for dam covers, to minimise evaporation from on-farm storages, is a part of this. The construction of the $84 million Emu Swamp Dam, which is due to start construction later this year, is
another important step towards water security for the region.

“Thinking longer term the Emu Swamp Dam will certainly help, and the new water entitlements from this scheme will be the first in this region for 20 years,” Angus said.

“This will help growers expand their businesses and add water security. We’d like to add widespread evaporation control as well, as many of
our growers are reliant on on-farm storage of water. “We’ll also be targeting the Future Drought Fund as evaporation control fits very well with the three strategies of the funding plan.”

The association is working with both Queensland peak horticulture body Growcom and APAL to progress resolution of these issues. While rebuilding from three years of severe drought will require time and support, there is a sense of unity up north, that may prove to be equally as valuable for industry resilience as the return of reliable annual rainfall.

 – Tim McGlone

Susie Murphy-White, Pomewest: Identify the opportunities

Susie Murphy-White

Taking the first step with a positive mindset is as critical as anything when it comes to recovering,according to Susie Murphy-White.

Susie is based in Manjimup, where she works as Project Manager for pomefruit at Pomewest. Significant hail in major growing regions in the west during October was damaging not just in terms of its quantity, but also its timing, coming just prior to the beginning of harvest. Susie emphasized the mental strength required from those in the industry, reiterating Ash Green in emphasizing the importance of taking the first step as quickly as possible in the aftermath, despite how difficult it may seem.

“You’ve just got to stay positive, I think” she said.

“Afterwards, if something does happen like the hail out here, I think it’s a matter of getting out there straightaway and crunching the numbers.

“Getting out there and working out where the opportunities are, where you can get your value back, where you can’t and processing that.”

One group of growers in Albany battled cockatoos for most of the season, and even employed around the clock quad bikers to ride around the orchards in order to keep the birds away. Susie says different applications of orchard protection also worked for some growers out west, and says things are looking better this year.

“We saw good results with those who put DrapeNet up really early, and also some modified it by knotting it together in different ways, modifying it a bit to suit their orchard,” she said.

“It’s been a really difficult season for all involved this year, but hopefully it’s a bit better moving forward.

“It’s started well, we’ve had a good amount of rain in the new year, so fingers crossed.”

– Tim McGlone

AFG bushfire drought hail Resilience

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