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Future Orchards: Creating positive change within your orchard (Part III)

Business Management

This article was written by Jonathan Brookes, Horticultural Consultant, AgFirst, and was first published in the Winter 2022 edition of AFG.

In this 3-part series, Jonathan discusses how growers can build a roadmap for change with data and good planning. Part III shows you how to build a roadmap for the future of your orchard, based on informed decision-making.

Building the roadmap

We have now worked through developing informed decisions around the need for changes to be made to specific blocks and what business theme areas we want to specifically focus on. We have specifically identified where the best effort was needed in the big picture of the business, and we have ensured our new changes and goals fit within a timeline that is correct for the overall orchard business.

When locking in the final roadmap for changes, remember to:

  • aim for excellence
  • work to your strengths, manage your weaknesses
  • use the best available information for decision-making
  • make new blocks the best they can be
  • ensure your orchard is future focused.

Aim for excellence

In setting goals, it is important to recognise that what is currently excellent orchard practice is likely to become average grower practice in the future. When changing parts of your orchard business, aim to make those changes at a level that is currently grower best practice or excellence focused.

Craig Hornblow made it clear in his article in the Summer 2021 edition of AFG that whichever Future Orchards® system you choose to plant, it needs to be planned and prepared well to survive 20-plus years. It must be a simple, narrow, accessible and productive (SNAP) system.

Work to your strengths, manage your weaknesses

Obviously, not all orchards and all blocks within orchards are created equal. Each block and orchard across Australia has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. These need to be understood and managed to achieve the best overall results for each individual block.

Not all of the themes within the Future Orchards project will be of equal relevance to every orchard.

Best decisions require best information

Use production benchmarking and profitability assessment tools, such as OrchardNet, to work out how well each block is actually doing, as well as what you should expect with your changes.

If your block is not performing, it is important to understand if you are a poor grower of a good variety, or a good grower of a poor variety. The optimised management decisions are quite different. Rank the performance of each block and look at this data over time to help decide what is the bottom 5–10 per cent of your orchard.

Identify the specific subjects that are significantly limiting or potentially limiting to your business, such as climate issues or labour. Drill down into these subjects to look for optimised solutions for your specific business. Make sure these are factored in to any changes you plan to make.

The best situation could be improving existing blocks to ensure better moderate to long-term sustainability for them. Identify a factor or factors that can be fixed that could improve yield, quality, climate security or make the block more labour friendly.

  • Could you regraft to a better variety in a block with good other fundamentals such as rootstock, planting distance and support trellises?
  • Can more wires and improved pruning make a block suitable for platform harvesting?
  • Is the best fix a focus on managing specific climate risk such as hail, heat or water?

Sometimes, the correct change solution will be to fully remove the block (see Figure 1). Generally, these blocks have no easy, quick-fix solutions available because the block:

  • is returning a negative result due to low yield or low returns
  • is a variety or rootstock that is no longer suitable
  • produced challenges around labour supply, such as tree style or harvest timing
  • uses other valuable resources such as water, labour, management or cashflow that would be better invested elsewhere.

Remember, informed planning is key to making changes.

Fallen trellis

Complete structural failure of a full crop of intensive-planted apple trees that was designed with inadequate post and wire support and fell over just before harvest.

Make new blocks the best they can be

Do your homework – talk to the markets, the variety owners and other growers and to try to understand variety trends, opportunities and limitations. Remember that not every new variety will be a winner. Successful growing is about calculated risk, you should at least do the due diligence to find out as much as you can. Doing nothing is also potentially a risk.

Make sure the variety is correct for your orchard location and your labour availability.

Find out about rootstock availability and suitability.

Recognise that growing systems can be just as much about current trends and personal preference as they are about performance. Be a believer in your own system – make sure it fits your orchard and what your orchard will look like in 20 years’ time.

Look to the long-term outcomes. The first 10 years of any new block are a honeymoon period. Most things go wrong in years 10 to 15. Talk to growers who have had systems in for long periods.

Get the support structure right – does it need to include hail netting, drainage, irrigation or fertigation? Remember that coming back to fix a problem in the future is always harder and more expensive.

Ensure your orchard is future focused

Once you have started ticking off all the big business theme challenges, start to focus on the smaller precision-based challenges.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Historically we assessed orchard performance at an orchard level, then we fine-tuned down to a variety level, then a variety block level. In the future this is likely to be down to a tree or even a branch or wire level.

Focus on fixing the areas within your business that can be improved; don’t fix what isn’t broken. Target the poor trees or blocks and work out how they can be improved. Don’t look to squeeze more out of your trees or blocks that are already at maximum production levels.

Collect and use data in a positive way – use efficient and effective tools and techniques – but also learn how to get data outputs you can use and don’t drown in the data.

Learn what technology is available to assist your business. Find what fits your orchard business the best and aim to make your business more effective and efficient.

Remember, being excellent at anything is harder than being average, but there is less long-term risk to your business if you practise excellence than if you settle for average as your target.

A significant driver in orchard excellence is the ability to look around and look forward at the industry you are in and understand what the future of growing is likely to look like. The successful grower will be able to objectively understand where their specific orchard fits within this future, and then make management decisions (including making changes where necessary) to ensure they are part of a positive journey forward – reacting to challenges and maximising opportunities, but always being ready and willing to make hard decisions and necessary changes.


Part I highlighted the importance of understanding the challenges and opportunities in your orchard to help you to make positive changes. Part II looked at defining goals as a key part of making changes in the orchard.

Future Orchards

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