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Five themes from the Grower R&D Update

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grower r&d update themes hugo britt

While Queensland cricketers narrowly defeated Victoria in the Sheffield Shield match taking place on the spotless grass of the MCG, ninety members of the Apple and Pear industry gathered above in the stadium’s Legends Room for the Grower R&D Update on Wednesday 13 November.

As the name of the event implies, the focus of the day was not only on shared challenges faced by growers, but an update on new technologies or ways of working that have the potential to solve these challenges.

Broadly, the themes of the day were orchard irrigation in a time of drought, pollination, agritech and smart farming, netting, and biosecurity

Orchard irrigation in a time of drought

Agriculture Victoria’s Dr Mark O’Connell started the day with a session titled Transforming your orchard irrigation with sensors and monitoring. After a brief summary of water scarcity issues and an explanation of crop water requirements, O’Connell ran through a number of emerging technologies and sensors for irrigation, touching on solutions for measuring evaporative demand, canopy size, under irrigation and over irrigation. Noteworthy solutions include a closed-loop irrigation system, artificial intelligence irrigation, weather-based irrigation scheduling, canopy temperature sensing, and multispectral imagery captured via fixed-wing aircraft.

This session was followed by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture’s Dr Nigel Swarts, who updated delegates on the soil characterisation component of the fertigation project, with new data on soil water availability within each soil profile. This data will eventually have a practical application as it underpins the strategic support tool SINATA, the Strategic Irrigation and Nitrogen Assessment Tool for Apples. SINATA will enable growers to look up their soil type, local climate and tree information to determine average irrigation and nitrogen requirements.

Pollination

Dr Katja Hogendoorn sounded the alarm with her presentation on Australia’s diversity of pollinators. At present, the bulk of pollination is done for free by feral honey bees, with a comparatively small percentage of managed hives in use. Hogendoorn expects this feral population to be wiped out with the imminent arrival of Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attacks and feeds on Apis cerana and Apis mellifera honeybees. With the feral population destroyed, growers will have to turn to managed hives, and can expect beekeepers to put their prices up by more than 300%. Hogendoorn provided delegates with information that will help curb pollinator declines and improve awareness of the importance of biodiversity, including research on the density of feral honey bees, the 15 species of bees visiting apple orchards, the ideal amount of vegetation around an orchard that will support a native population, and plants to support bees in the crop.

The behaviour of honey bees can be affected by conditions under nets. Dr Lisa Evans presented findings from a study of New Zealand kiwifruit orchards and the effect of their netting on hive populations. She found that 71% of bees failed to return to their colony after visiting a covered orchard, while only 37% failed to return with open orchards. Foraging trips per day and average days spent foraging also decreased dramatically. Research is ongoing, but it appears that netting interferes with the bees’ ability to navigate. Populations are also impacted by residual insecticides and fungicides under netting.

With hives under netting coming out significantly weaker than when they were put in, this is likely to lead to beekeepers either increasing their fees or refusing to put their bees in netted orchards altogether. Evans took delegates through some of the experiments her team undertook to see if this problem could be resolved, including putting holes in covers, providing visual landmarks for bees, and decreasing colony sizes.

Agritech and Smart Farming

Agriculture Victoria has recently established a unique row orientation and tree size experiment called a “sundial orchard”. Its objectives are to study the effects of lights on yield, fruit quality and ecophysiology, evaluate sensors and sensing platforms, robotics and automation, explore techniques for traceability of fruit, and demonstrate best practice IPDM. While it’s early days for the experiment, Dr Ian Goodwin covered the following research themes:

  • thresholds of risk of fruit sun damage
  • fruit colour in response to light
  • fruit initiation (and set) in response to light
  • measuring light in tree canopies
  • photo-inhibition and water use efficiency.

Goodwin was followed by SwarmFarm Robotics’ Angus Hogan, who updated delegates on a trial where SwarmFarm is using robotics to measure tree canopy and flower density to deliver a more precise variable spray solution for apple flower thinning.

A brief but informative session followed, led by Tie Up Farming’s Roei Yaakobi. He explored the role of data science, AI, and machine learning in day-to-day orchard management, with an emphasis on the importance of end-to-end systems (growing, harvesting, packing shed and marketing) instead of fragmented tech solutions.

The first of two guest speakers from the USA, Rob Blakey (R&D Manager of Stemlit Growers) talked about how machines and systems can be used to (at first) optimise and eventually replace human pickers to remain competitive in a consolidating industry. Blakey’s vision of harvesting technology progress begins with manual (human) labour and ends with flying robots working 24/7. Blakey’s presentation was peppered with video footage of robotic harvesters at various stages of development, from claw-like machines that identify and pick apples, to vacuum-tube-like machines that sucked the apples of the tree, to a prototype-stage flying robot picker.

Netting

A panel discussion on netting, led by Apple & Pear Growers Association of South Australia’s CEO, Susie Green, discussed:

  • Purposes of netting: excluding cockatoos and other birds, netting for sunburn, hail netting and water retention.
  • Benefits of permanent versus drape netting.
  • Chemical application under netting.
  • Pest management under netting.
  • Netting management to respond to the concerns raised in the pollination session about nets harming bee populations.

Biosecurity

The final session of the day began with our second guest from the USA, Bill Mackintosh. Speaking via a video link, Mackintosh talked about his experience with the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) and provided growers with practical solutions for dealing with the pest including management of vegetation that attracts BMSB, trapping, measuring population numbers, and the effectiveness of various chemical applications. Read more about BMSB preparation here.

The R&D Update finished with a presentation from David Williams (Agriculture Victoria) on the effectiveness of the introduced parasitoid wasp Mastrus ridens in combating codling moths, followed by a discussion of cold treatments for fruit fly disinfestation for access to quarantine markets, led by Dr Franics De Lima of AgHort Solutions.

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