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Focus Orchards – Labour experiences and thoughts for the future

Research & Extension

Following on from the March Future Orchards orchard walk where Ross Wilson and I focused our presentation on labour, I thought I would ask the two Focus Orchards I’m involved with – Montague, Narre Warren, and Hansen Orchards, Huon Valley – about their experience with labour platforms and any thoughts on where the focus needs to be for future solutions.

Labour force

A proportion of orchards have changed over the years with smaller narrower trees and an increase in yield, but harvest labour productivity has not changed.

“Eight to ten years ago we were achieving five bins per person per day, now we might be lucky to achieve two and a half.”

We are needing more pickers and the proportion of experienced pickers within the harvest team is much less.

The lack of backpackers has meant the demographic is changing. The backpackers had the motivation to stay and work to extend their visa, and to fund the next leg of their travel. The local pickers have differing needs, continuity of employment being more important.

The season worker program has helped with the supply of pickers with little or no turnover. Whether using locals, back packers or Pacific Islander’s the need for training and getting new staff up to speed still remains a big task. Staff turnover has increased and when staff turnover is high or the demand increases the challenge of getting new pickers up to speed is the same. How can we train and support workers to achieve good productivity quickly?

Platforms

Both Focus Orchard businesses interviewed are currently using Revo platforms for harvest. To achieve good season-long averages of 3-4 bins per day, staff training, and then retention is very important. Platforms have helped new pickers get up to acceptable performance within a few days.  The time for some pickers to learn and “get up to speed” with ladder picking is much longer.  There is a lot of skill in just managing a ladder, positioning it in the right place to maximise the picking, and it’s also more physical. If you can remove the ladder from the first few days of a picker’s experiences, the picker can focus on picking the right fruit.

“I’m sure turnover was much lower, having platforms for harvest. Some workers would have found ladder picking just too hard and physical especially in the first week and would have left looking for other work.”

As with all picking if you can reduce picks of each block to 1-2 passes, efficiency significantly improves. With platforms like the Revo, where picker position is relatively fixed, they are very efficient in this 1-2 pick/pass scenario. Efficiency drops off with multiple pick varieties and/or where fruit distribution is not consistent. Platform picking is not as flexible as an individual picker and ladder where fruit and canopies are inconsistent.

“The more machines we use the more attention to detail is needed to achieve consistent canopies and even fruit distribution to maximise the capital of a platform”.

Figure 1 Narrow platform ready canopy of Rosy Glow

Figure 1 Narrow platform ready canopy of Rosy Glow

A leaf blower is creating benefits in existing plantings with improved fruit colour which is also improving the percentage of fruit picked in each pick.

The combination of the leaf blower technology and platforms will lead to greater efficiency of the platforms.”

When inclement weather arrives, pickers on platforms have been more likely to continue than those on ladders, in part this could be a simple safety issue of climbing damp ladders.  I have also seen platforms with sun and rain shades fitted which can improve the total hours the machine is working.

Orchard rows may need to be longer to minimize the down time of turning at the end of rows, not all platforms have the same turning arc and will have differing down time.

The aspect or terrain of an orchard can be too challenging and will not be suitable for some platforms.

“Poor drainage leading to wheel ruts and uneven ground may prohibit the use of platforms over the whole farm. “

In other blocks the main limitation is platform access down the row. Long branches with uneven fruit distribution need to be replaced with shorted more even and more productive branches. More and more focus is required to ensure the canopies are platform friendly.

Continuity of work

Apple production has always had significant peaks and troughs in labour demand making it less attractive than other industries or crops within agriculture. To become a more attractive employer and get the most out of the investment in platforms there needs to more consideration to continuity of work over the whole season.

Specifically for harvest, variety mix within the orchard impacts the labour demand significantly and is a long-term strategic decision.

 “More consideration of the variety mix we have within each orchard is important as we redevelop them to achieve a more even continuity of harvest workflow”.

New technology can have some impact on the peak and troughs through harvest. Hansen Orchards have used Harvistaä on a number of varieties both for quality improvements and extending the harvest windows.

To demonstrate this the following is a brief summary of data from a Focus Orchard Trial conducted by Front Line Advisor Sophie Folder in Tasmania this year (2021).

Harvistaä was applied to Gala pre harvest, maturity and  fruit quality were assessed.

Figure 1: Starch Pattern Index (SPI) at harvest

The following conclusions were drawn from this demonstration trial;

  • The application of PGR (Harvistaä) delayed the commercial harvest date by 10 days allowing for greater red colour development.
  • Harvista is a useful tool for extending the harvest window without detriment to eating quality.

Full report of the trial can be found here.

 Looking forward

The Seasonal Worker Program will be increasingly important and wider adoption is likely.

Other technology will come into play (leaf blowers, mechanical trimming and maybe even Robots) not just platforms, so the canopy has to be narrow and consistent. We will need to continually improve execution and attention to detail to achieve people and machine friendly orchards of high production.

With an increase of machinery highly likely, there will be more movements up and down rows so excellent smooth ground conditions will be critical. For machinery like leaf blowers and hedging, wheel ruts and canopy inconsistency will be a real limitation. To achieve this, we will need a greater attention to pre plant development particularly drainage and sward development.

In some situations, orchard design for platforms suitability and efficiency will need a few suitable changes including longer rows and slightly wider headlands.

Orchard systems get continually debated and its confusing for sure sometimes, but one thing seems clear, the canopy needs to be narrower whether its formal or random, V or vertical. Canopies options are endless, it’s not set in stone and will evolve.  Let’s continue the orchard system debate. Is it too radical to revisit the “pedestrian orchard”? Fewer or no ladders would be a good thing as long as we can achieve high production of quality fruit.

We need to improve the continuity of labour demand in our orchards and a combination of new varieties and technology will help improve this.

Labour supply is not only a Covid-related short-term issue, and will continue to be an ongoing medium-term issue. We need to be strategic and focus on creating medium and long term solutions.

Thanks to

Sophie Folder – Future Orchards FLA

Nigel Bartels – Hansen Orchards

Shaun Whitchell – Montagues

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