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Key messages from Spring Future Orchards walks

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Plan ahead. Technology can help to build a uniform orchard, and a uniform orchard will ease integration of new technology. APAL’s Technical Manager Rosalie Daniel summaries the latest Future Orchard walks.

The Future Orchards® team has just completed the second round of orchard walks for 2019, covering more than 2,185 km by road and visiting apple and pear production regions in Stanthorpe, Orange, Batlow, Goulburn Valley, Pemberton, Adelaide Hills, Harcourt, and Launceston. The orchard walks focused on developing a more uniform orchard that is set up and ready for emerging technology to improve efficiencies in labour, orchard monitoring and management, and assessment of yield and quality.

Our guests for the Northern Loop were Nic Finger, AgFirst Horticultural Consultant, Dr Rob Blakey, R&D Manager from Stemilt Growers in Washington State, and Angus Hogan, Project Lead for SwarmFarm Robotics. On the Southern Loop we were joined by Craig Hornblow from AgFirst and Dirk van Hees from Fruit Consult in the Netherlands.

Rob Blakey had a primary take-home message:

‘Plan and prepare your orchard for the future by establishing more uniform tree systems ready for integration of emerging technology to take advantage of associated efficiencies.’

future orchards walks key messages

Rob Blakey from Stemilt Growers presenting during the Future Orchard Walk in the Goulburn Valley

Stemilt grow 4250 ha (10,500 acres) of fruit, 2/3 of which is apple, in Washington State. The company recognised a need to get bigger and more efficient and one way to do this was to adopt new technologies. But as pointed out by all our guest speakers, Agtech is a busy space.

So how does a grower decide which is the best technology? Stemilt identified key business goals: consistently grow a high yield of market appropriate, quality fruit to achieve a sustainable net return; develop a plan to achieve these goals; make sure the plan fits into the resources available within the business. Based on these goals, a range of technologies are being researched and tested on Stemilt farms in collaboration with Agtech companies to identify and tailor systems to best match the company’s needs. In the orchard, Stemilt have adopted harvesting platforms to get pickers off ladders to improve efficiency and safety. Moving to ground assist systems means pickers spend more time picking rather than walking in the orchard.  The Bandit Xpress platform used at Stemilt has improved picking efficiency by 40%.  The same platform is used for thinning, tying and other orchard operations.

Stemilt are also looking at using technology to monitor soil moisture and optimise irrigation management and manage fruit quality.  Recently they have been working with Agtech companies to evaluate the potential for aerial imaging in the orchard to improve monitoring of water and thermal stresses and canopy characteristics to identify issues such as irrigation requirements, blockages in irrigation systems and nutrient imbalances.

In some cases, Blakey says, where an orchard has too many issues it may be better to start again, preparing the soil and orchard layout using GPS from the beginning so that the system is more uniform. The future big picture scenario for Blakey is to have an aerial imagery system that can be tied into automatic variable rate application of inputs, and to match fruit quality and yield to this imagery data. To get the most out of technology, and be ready to adopt, Blakey says it is important to plan and develop your orchard by ensuring uniformity, so that robots and automated platforms can function properly and add value, and to work in collaboration with Agtech developers.

“Plan, and then execute your plan,” says Blakey.

future orchards walks spring key messages

Nic Finger leading orchard discussions during the Future Orchard walk in Stanthorpe

future orchards walks spring key messages

Front line advisor Jess Fernley in the demonstration orchard during the Future Orchard walk at Orange Agricultural Institute

These messages were supported by Nic Finger and Craig Hornblow from AgFirst, who asked: “How do I accelerate technology and what are the distractions?” A common theme throughout the orchard walks was to test something new in small area of the orchard first. If it works, then it can be expanded out into the orchard.

Van Hees, a fruit cropping consultant with Fruit Consult in the Netherlands, has the advantage that Fruit Consult have their own research station (Proeftuin Randwijk) on which they are able to develop and evaluate new technologies. One such project currently underway is Fruit 4.0, developing an orchard monitoring system that is mounted on a tractor and collects data all year round, whenever the tractor is in the orchard. Data collected incudes flowering intensity, crop load, soil data and plant growth. Observation of flowering using this system was shown to be 80% reliable in early trials. This will be used to inform crop thinning, fertiliser requirements, root pruning and yield forecasting. Fruit Consult also have models for prediction of diseases including Neonectria canker, a big problem on Kanzi in Europe, and Brown spot.

Some challenges faced by the project include the existing planting density and uniformity of the orchards which goes back to the point made by Blakey and Agfirst about planning the orchard for the future of Agtech. Platforms are also being developed to track fruit from the orchard through to the packing shed, linking fruit yield and quality information back to the orchard management strategies, not dissimilar to Blakey’s future scenario. The aim is for data collection to move from per hectare to per tree – ‘growing apples not wood’. Preparing for the future means building new orchards on GPS maps including, for example, where irrigation lines are so that tasks such as root pruning using GPS are possible.

In the Goulburn Valley, growers were able to see first-hand emerging Agtech being developed in Australia in the form of an autonomous variable rate sprayer being developed by Angus Hogan at Swarm Farm Robotics.  Funded by Hort Innovation (AP16005 – Developing agri-tech solutions to the Australian apple industry) the variable rate sprayer will improve coverage and precision when applying crop thinning products.  More information on this project and the sprayer can be found on the APAL website and the Hort Innovation website.

Other topics discussed during orchard walks included the need for soil and leaf analysis to inform fertiliser requirements, timing of nutrient application to improve quality, netting, root stock comparisons, timing of application of crop thinning products, and pruning technologies.  These pruning technologies included the move in European orchards toward pruning for short vital wood rather than long branches, such as the system used by some growers in South Tirol. Van Hees says more than 80% of European orchards are slender spindle trees and talked about pruning branches to 10 cm stumps to get fruit closer to the stem. “The future is 2-D” says van Hees. Many of these topics have been discussed in previous Future Orchard walks, with presentations and information is available on the Future Orchards Library.

Many thanks to everyone who participated in the Future Orchard walks, to our expert guests, Front Line Advisors, our host orchards and orchard managers.  We have received positive feedback from the events and hope that the ideas discussed will stimulate conversation and improve efficiency, productivity and quality in orchards around the country.

future orchards walks key messages

In the Goulburn Valley, Angus Hogan from Swarm Farm robotics demonstrates the autonomous variable rate sprayer being developed through Hort Innovation Project AP16005 – Developing agri-tech solutions to the Australian apple industry

future orchards walks key messages

Dirk van Hees discusses foliar nutrient deficiencies and leaf analyses with growers in the Adelaide Hills

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