Robotics and automation will play a key role in fifth-generation fruit grower Mitchell McNab’s plans to drive efficiencies and quality in his Goulburn Valley family orchard.
For more than a century H.V. McNab & Son Pty Ltd has been at the forefront of apple and pear production in the Goulburn Valley – the epicentre of Australia’s pome fruit industry – but tradition certainly doesn’t stand in the way of innovation at this family-owned orchard and cool-storage facility.
A 2016 Nuffield Scholarship enabled Mitchell to investigate the use of robotics in pome fruit harvesting and packing around the world and he sees great potential in automation to both ease labour needs and at the same time improve packout percentages through reduced bruising by manual handling.
As the new chairman of Fruit Growers Victoria Ltd (FGVL), he is encouraging other growers to consider the potential for robotics in their own orchard management.
“Right across the industry, the idea is to try to be as efficient as we possibly can with those labour units to either bring our cost down or make it a justifiable expense,” he said. “If there are any processes we can adopt, we will.”
New technology amid heritage trees
The first block of trees was planted by Mitchell’s great-great-grandfather, Victor Richard McNab (a retired teacher and lecturer), at Ardmona, Victoria, in 1910. Victor’s son, Herbert Victor, gave the enterprise its current name.
The family also helped to establish the Ardmona fruit processing plant and remained an active supplier until the company’s merger with SPC to form SPC-Ardmona in 2002.
Today, H.V. McNab & Son is one of the main players in pome fruit in the region.
The operation’s final delivery to the Coca-Cola Amatil-owned SPC cannery at Mooroopna was made last year and it now concentrates exclusively on producing fresh fruit for domestic or international consumption.
“We have about 70 hectares under fruit production,” Mitchell said.
“About 60 per cent of our production is pears, 30 per cent is apples and the remaining 10 per cent is plums. Recently we’ve been planting a new club variety of plum, Queen Garnet, which has incredibly high antioxidant levels.
Pears grown are primarily William Bartlett and Packham. Some have been grafted over to the new blush pear ANP-0131 (test-branded as Fránk™), and they also have Red Sensation. Apples grown are Gala, Granny Smith and Cripps Pink (marketed as Pink Lady®).
As a result of the move away from supplying the processing sector, Mitchell has begun removing large volumes of Williams pears.
A special row of heritage trees dating from 1910 is being spared, however. Believed to be the oldest commercially fruiting pears in Australia, they edge the main driveway into the property.
Mitchell sells fruit domestically through Integrity Fruit, both into Woolworths, Coles and Aldi supermarkets, and into selected export programs.
“We also do some pears into Canada and even a few Asian markets,” Mitchell said.
“In the coming years we’ll be transitioning our orchard by planting some more apples and stonefruit. At the moment we’re going through the process of evaluating which varieties are going to be suitable and which provide the right opportunities.”
Skilled labour essential
Mitchell joined the McNab business as a permanent team member almost a decade ago, having moved away from the orchard initially to complete a business degree in Melbourne.
“Working part-time there in hospitality while I studied taught me human resources skills, for example, that are useful here now,” he said.
Mitchell succeeded his father, Andrew, as orchard manager and is now responsible for guiding the operation forward.
One of the first challenges he faces is securing an ongoing supply of reliable, appropriately skilled labour.
While the perception is often that picking fruit is an unskilled job, using the correct handling technique is in actual fact paramount to preserving the integrity of pears and apples.
“Between five and 10 per cent [of waste], at least, is caused by picker damage: bruising or breaking skins on pears – that sort of thing,” Mitchell said.
“Part of the reason Australia’s had an issue with its packout for a long time, I think, is that we don’t really manage that workforce properly.
“Until recently there was some value in juice, as limited as it was, but ultimately we need to grow high-quality fruit and we need to ensure that while we’re harvesting it we’re not damaging that fruit. We can grow the most perfect piece of fruit out in the orchard and spend a lot of money maintaining it, and then a worker comes in and damages it in three seconds and that’s all the good work gone.
“We try to instil the right skillsets into people when they’re working with us but the problem is having a high turnover of staff. With the backpacker program it’s very difficult to retain people and retain their skillsets.”
That continual struggle around staffing has prompted H.V. McNab & Son – which currently uses MADEC as its backpacker labour hire provider – to seek accreditation as a direct employer within the Australian Government’s Pacific and Torres Strait Islands Seasonal Worker Program.
In 2017 Mitchell successfully engaged a group of 10 seasonal workers from Vanuatu for six months.
“Year-round we have four other people full-time,” he said.
“At peak times – from mid-February, when the pears start – we have 80–100 people a day working here. That drops to about 30 – 40 a day for apples until the end of May, when we finish the last of the Cripps Pink.”
Ideally, Mitchell said, experienced seasonal workers returned year after year, providing continuity and stability and slashing the need for training.
“It’s definitely preferable to having a backpacker who you train who then leaves in a week’s time. The turnover of staff like that is usually very high.”
Striving to at least partially solve the labour dilemma is the impetus for Mitchell’s interest in robotics.
In 2016 Mitchell was awarded a Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship to enable him to investigate the use of robotics in pome fruit harvesting and packing around the world.
Travelling in the brief down-period of winter, he initially spent two weeks in Ireland, then joined a group tour through 17 countries.
His final research was carried out in the United States and Israel.
Mitchell has already begun structuring the newer blocks of trees to suit mechanical harvesting.
It has trended in recent years towards high-density planting: “about four metres by one metre”.
“Going forward we’ll be reducing that down to 3.5 metres, though,” Mitchell said.
“The opportunities for automated harvesting are much greater with these new plantings, and removing that human labour from the scenario is, hopefully, going to minimise any picker bruising, for instance.”
He said two companies were leading the way in developing and trialling robotic harvesting of pears and apples.
“Over the next five years, I think, there’s going to be a sort of transition around this,” he said.
“Abundant Robotics, which has been doing some great work, is based in the US. It’s done some trials in Australia already.
“And then there’s FF Robotics in Israel, which I visited.”
Among equipment examined by Mitchell was an FF Robotics device fitted with four individual ‘arms’ with a ‘claw’ on the end, each capable of doing the work of eight people.
“That’s the equivalent of 32 pickers in a single machine, and it’s incredibly gentle with the fruit; it does far less damage than pickers,” Mitchell said.
Thanks to LED lights that enable the sensor to ‘see’ in the dark, it is able to evaluate fruit piece by piece on a tree, then pick according to size, colour and freedom from blemishes, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when needed.
“Using these lights it will still be able to understand and read the colour spectrum of the fruit and sort it accordingly.
“That promises huge efficiency gains in that we’ll be able to actually pick more crop at the optimum time and with optimum colour. We’ll be able to be more efficient within our harvest windows.
“And there are a lot of opportunities in automated packing as well, and it won’t end there.
“I think we can automate sprayers and all those sorts of things. Hort Innovation already has a program around a flower-thinning automated sprayer system.
“Irrigation nowadays is basically automated with sensors. Applying plant fertilisers is done a lot through fertigation or spraying.
“There’ll be a lot of things: robotic tractors, robotic pruners. A lot of the orchard tasks that need to be carried out over the year could well be completed by robotic technology, removing a large percentage of our labour.
“Using all of this, I don’t see why our labour costs couldn’t come down significantly within the next 10 to 20 years.”
Mitchell said rather than buy a machine outright, growers or groups of growers would most likely lease one from its manufacturer.
“These companies have invested a lot of money and time into developing the intellectual property rights so they want to maintain those rights. They’re going to try to restrict who gets to purchase their machines with the intent of retaining them and leasing them out or commissioning them to growers on a rate of per-kilogram harvesting.
“I believe it has cost Abundant Robotics $160 million to get its machinery to the commercialisation stage. It’s a huge, huge investment to make it happen so they’re not just going to let anyone have that technology.”
The right balance
Crop thinning is carried out in two chemical thinning applications which can be followed up, if required, by hand.
The most problematic pest of pome fruit at Ardmona in recent years has been Queensland fruit fly.
“It’s something our growers have had to learn quite quickly how to control by implementing the right management processes. Now, as an industry we’re starting to get on top of it.”
H.V. McNab & Son was an early adopter of integrated pest management (IPM) in its orchard.
“The main issue we have around the Goulburn Valley is codling moth – our major pest,” Mitchell said.
“We’ve been working with our local agronomist, Steve Booth, for 28 years and using IPM practices for probably 10 years now. It’s been a slow process to get right but we are making it work so far.”
For data aggregation and analysis Mitchell uses orchard management software known as Agworld.
“We’ve been using that for four years now,” Mitchell said.
“It allows us to track all our costs out in the orchard down to the block.
“This enables us to understand the profit and loss scenarios of each block and track our costs throughout the season to help us make more informed decisions on what we should do with our product and also keep track of pest and disease issues in each block and track our labour and input costs throughout the season.”
About 15 years ago H.V. McNab & Son acquired an external packing shed.
There, together with five other Goulburn Valley growers it established a packing and storage business known as Integrity Fruit.
By holding apples and pears on-site Integrity enables its five shareholders to stream product to customers throughout the year.
It also has the capacity to store not only its own fruit but some for fellow growers in its on-farm cool-storage facility.
“We’ve done this for a long time,” Mitchell said, “and in conjunction with Integrity periodically we store some of its product as well, as needed. It’s open to anybody who’s interested.”
In addition to running the orchard business, Mitchell contributes to the broader pome fruit industry through his new role as Chairman of FGVL.
In 2017 he was elected to the board of the organisation, and this year he stepped up to take on its chairmanship.
A current oversupply of pears in Australia is one of the issues FGVL is looking to address.
“Trying to get an understanding of the things we can implement to try to resolve this is something we’ll be heavily involved in,” Mitchell said.
“Our main aim currently at Fruit Growers Victoria is to provide value to our members and ensure we are actively advocating for grower members’ interests.”
FGVL represents about 300 grower-members state-wide.
Mitchell said protecting Australia’s ‘clean, green’ image was a major priority. “We have maintained for a long time now this image in our markets so we need to continue to provide a high-quality piece of fruit that we can send overseas in return for the price premium that’s required to maintain a sustainable export program in Australia.”
Based on his Nuffield research he encourages all growers to consider the potential of robotics when managing their orchards.
“We need to have a simple, narrow canopy that makes it as easy as possible for our labour source, whether it be robotic or human, to perform tasks, whether it’s thinning, pruning or picking, quickly and efficiently.
“We also need to have the right varieties – whether they be club varieties or open commodity varieties – for our growing regions and the environment we’re growing in, in order to provide the highest quality fruit to consumers as possible.”
At H.V. McNab & Son, Mitchell is certainly heeding his own advice.’
Mitchell’s Nuffield Scholarship was funded by Hort Innovation under Project LP15000, a strategic partnership initiative that is part of the Hort Frontiers Leadership Fund.