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Future Orchards® walks – What we learnt in the Goulburn Valley and Western Australia

Research & Extension

Our first week of the Future Orchards® winter series walks wrapped up in the Goulburn Valley focussing on platforms, productivity, pears and packouts, before heading to Western Australia and South Australia to look at crop load management and bud counts to guide pruning. 


Irrigation sensors prompted interest among Goulburn Valley growers at the Silver Orchards. 

In the Goulburn Valley, our first walk was hosted by Bo Silverstein, Silver Orchards, led by Craig Hornblow from AgFirst and we were joined by international guest Willie Kotze, Horticultural Technical Advisor Pomefruit at Dutoit, South Africa.   

In discussions with Australian growers and our New Zealand and South African guests we learned that growers are facing similar challenges globally, with concerns around labour, variety choices, input costs, returns, changing climate and making decisions on how best to manage this.  


Silver Orchards recently purchased a platform and used it for picking the first time this season.  Purchasing a platform is a big investment and requires a shift in both staff supervision and management, as well as orchard design.  

Key learnings and observations about the gains from and use of platforms were: 

Efficiency gains – are in staff being able to get to picking the minimum bin rate more quickly. Some workers will still be more efficient on a ladder with a bag. There may not always be an increase in the number of bins picked per day. 

Changing supervision requirements – a platform requires people to work together in a team. This requires different training and supervision.  

“The difference is that with ladders we’re used to dealing with pickers one-to-one. Platforms have a 4, 5 or 6 people working together, sometimes not at the same pace.” 

“How fast is the platform travelling? Is everyone picking at the same rate?” 

“The management system needs to change – a pilot or supervisor needs to manage the others on the platform.” 

Fit, capable workforce still required – A platform still needs staff that are reasonably fit and capable.  

“Accessing a platform is still not suited to everyone as it involves climbing up to get onto the platform and standing for long periods of time.” 

Orchard uniformity drives greater efficiency – an orchard with even fruit distribution across a uniform canopy improves efficiency in picking. There is a need to consider distance to trees and fruit for picking and pruning, and the evenness of fruit distribution throughout the canopy. 

Terrain can present challenges – Wet spots in the orchard can be tricky to get through. 

Quality gains – quality was generally reported to be better on platforms, with less bruising of fruit.  

 Efficiency gains greatest in pruning/thinning – Greater efficiencies in platforms were reported in thinning and pruning tasks, rather than picking.  

  • Uniformity in the orchard provides greater efficiency in picking; there is a need to consider distance to trees and fruit for picking and pruning, and the evenness of fruit distribution throughout the canopy 
  • Wet spots in the orchard can be tricky to get through 
  • Quality was generally reported to be better on platforms, with less bruising of fruit.  


In orchard we looked at how vigour management of Cripps Pink block using root pruning, crop load management and summer pruning had turned it around from being one of the least productive to one of the most productive blocks.   

Based on data from the Orchard Business Analysis (OBA) conducted for APAL by AgFirst and FruitHelp, Craig and Willie discussed the profitability gains that have been achieved, and those that can still be achieved through different management practices. The orchard has also invested in a hedger to make the trees more uniform.  We also discussed the timing and application rates of plant growth regulators to reduce regrowth and prevent blind wood.  

At Silver Orchards we also had the honour of presenting Rien Silverstein with the APAL award for Women in Horticulture. Rien was chosen from a strong field of women and what stood out for the nomination committee was her advocacy on behalf of the industry for wage reform and her leadership and generosity in mentoring other women in horticulture.   


On Friday, we turned specifically to pears at Valley Star where the orchard walk was hosted by Donny Ymer and Elita Ymer. Marcel Veens, having just returned from Europe where pears are achieving better returns than apples, led the orchard walk focussing on the letter ‘P’ – pears, packout, profitability and packout.  

Key issues were the returns on growing pears, achieving better quality and how pears are presented in-store. Donny said his aim was to improve packout.  This past season he used drape nets to reduce damage from hail and sunburn.    

In the V-trellised Packham block, Donny and Marcel demonstrated how to prune pears to achieve optimum bud numbers and improve quality, for example by reducing the risk of stem rub, as well as pruning to reduce the height and vigour of trees.   

Marcel Veens demonstrates managing tree height at the pear walk at Valley Star. 

Crop load management 

Using data to drive decision-making was the focus as we headed into the second week starting in Pemberton, Western Australia, hosted by Dean and Murray Collins, Collins Brothers, and joined by Ross Wilson from AgFirst and international guests Nigel Cooke and Peter Allderman.    

Ross used data from the OBA and techniques in the orchard to look at how to make the hard decisions – what is generating dollars in the business? 

In a Rosy Glow block achieving good fruit size and packouts, Ross and Nigel demonstrated how to count buds and prune to achieve optimum bud numbers to meet crop targets.   

We discussed how average fruit size in a Kanzi block could be increased to meet the Collins’ target of 170g, fruit per tree reduced, while maintaining a yield of 65 tonne/hectare.   

Options included: 

  • Improving canopy fill so that the tree intercepts more light. This may involve making sure pruners have good guidance to encourage leader extension, and ensure it is clearly apically dominant  
  • Tying up any branches so that they are not falling over 
  • Reducing the crop load at the top.  

Willie said that in South Africa they work on pruning out the very strong, very old, and very weak branches.  We also tapped into Nigel’s knowledge of calcium nutrition and the need to ensure sufficient storage and availability of calcium that can be allocated to the fruit to reduce the risk of pitting.  

Walk attendees at Collins Brothers, Pemberton, discuss adapting blocks to suit platforms.  

In a Rosy Glow block, planted at 4.2m row width, Dean and Murray outlined how they are bringing the canopy size in towards the rows (but still within arm’s reach for picking) and working toward a more uniform canopy to be better suited for platform use for picking and other orchard tasks.  

Pruning and bud counts 

The South Australian walk hosted by Robert Green, Oakleigh Orchards, kicked off with a discussion of the key challenges faced by growers in the three countries represented – Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. 

Key issues facing Adelaide Hills growers attending were attracting quality labour to the orchards amongst competition from other employers, increasing input costs, costs of netting relative to the value of the crop and marketing challenges due to the heavy reliance on the domestic market. 

Nigel and Peter said the challenges faced by South African growers included infrastructure and political uncertainty, defects such as sunburn and internal browning, warm climate effects on chilling and breaking dormancy.  

New Zealand growers face similar challenges to Australian growers, Ross said, including high costs of production, variety mixes, changing international market dynamics and the cost and availability of labour. 

Oakleigh Orchards grow several varieties including Rockit™.  Ross said Rockit is one of the biggest varieties being planted in New Zealand.  It is popular in the Asian market, less vigorous than some older varieties and crops early.  

A big turnout of growers at Oakleigh Orchards were shown how counting bud numbers to guide pruning could assist in hitting crop targets. 

The technique of counting buds to prune to achieve the target bud number and crop target was demonstrated by Ross and Nigel in a Rosy Glow and a Bravo block. Counting buds is a way of quantifying the amount of wood to leave on the tree.  

More information about counting bud numbers can be found on the APAL website here.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to our Orchard Walk hosts Bo Silverstein, Donny and Elita Ymer, Murray and Dean Collins and Robert Green for their generosity in opening their orchards and sharing their experiences.   

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