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Hail lessons: Base decisions on data and don’t skimp on inputs

Weather & Environment

hail lessons stock

Widespread spring hailstorms in the last two growing seasons have put South Australian growers through some challenging times managing orchards to minimise the impact on production. The Apple & Pear Growers Association of SA (APGASA) has just completed a project to capture key learnings to inform future hail event preparedness and spoke to four growers about their responses and experiences.

Paul Mason, SR & SM Mason: Lenswoodhail lessons paul mason

The 2017 storm came through on a Sunday evening. The first thing we did as a family and a business was to meet Monday morning to discuss what we’d seen and have a closer look at the orchard.

We decided we needed to do some assessments to ensure decisions were based on fact, not just emotion. Our business has a strong culture and philosophy of growing only quality fruit, and we decided that if packout was likely to be below 70 per cent, we would need to do everything we could to remove as much crop as quickly and cheaply as possible. Samples indicated our average packout would be in the vicinity of 40 per cent.

The first decision was to add a full rate of carbaryl in the tank with the fungicide cover spray due at that time. We followed that up with heavy applications of ethephon on all blocks that would not meet an “acceptable” packout.

The other critical decision we made was to reduce labour costs in the orchard as much as possible (thinning and picking), but not to cut any corners in terms of looking after the trees. We continued to irrigate and fertilise as normal and kept up our pest and disease management programs. We also reduced our post-harvest costs by not storing, grading and packing fruit that wasn’t going to be up to standard.

Making the decisions was less emotional than actually executing them. The hardest part was driving through the orchard with a heap of ethephon (mainly), knowing that once it was sprayed the crop was doomed, even if it remained on the tree. We also knew that this decision would potentially have further effects in subsequent seasons in terms of return bloom and biennial bearing.

In the end we only grew around one third of our normal crop. The ethephon applications significantly reduced the vegetative growth of the trees but also negatively impacted on the quality of the fruit that remained. We expected both of these responses. The pears responded very strongly to the ethephon application and almost completely dropped their crop.

We then grew a very big crop in 2018. We are confident that we will have a decent crop next year looking at resting spurs, but time will tell. The decisions we made initially were based on the fact that our business was in a position where it could sustain a year of very low returns, as long as we cut costs. We also invested further in netting with assistance from our bank.

The biggest difference with the 2018 event was that it occurred later in the season than the previous year’s event and the fruit was more advanced. We had no chemical thinners at our disposal, so we had no choice but to grow it all and focus on reducing labour as much as possible by sending crews through quickly.

The scenarios were different to the year before, but we were probably a little bit more prepared and we had more orchard netted.

Ashley Green & Michael Booth, SE Green & Sons: Lenswoodhail lessons ashley green

After the 2017 hail, we firstly had to pick ourselves up off the ground as we were in shock. We then had a good look around to try to understand the extent and the level of impact on an individual block basis. We talked to others, some of whom were planning to spray the crop off, but our approach was to look for value.

We did some assessments where we stripped whole trees and sorted fruit into three categories. We felt that if the assessments indicated a minimum packout of 50 per cent we would continue to grow the crop for fresh market. With a juice return of $100/bin maximum, we were willing to invest in the crop within the additional return that we thought we could get from the fresh market. If we thought we could get $200/bin, we were willing to spend up to $100/bin to give ourselves a chance of an improved return.

On the better blocks, we continued with our secondary chemical thinning program with the aim being to do minimal hand thinning. The worse blocks, we just aimed to strip-pick for juice. We considered all options for trying to repair/improve skin finish such as 6,BA and Cytolin applications and applied to a significant number of blocks.

We based our decisions on whether or not we could add value to the crop. What would the crop look like after hand thinning? Would the investment in that labour add enough additional value to the end product?

We always had the following season in mind and knew we had to keep growing the crop as we normally would in terms of irrigation, fertiliser and pest and disease management.

We sat down constantly to review and discuss at the end of every day, usually over a beer. The decisions were fluid and we adjusted our actions as we went along in response to what we were seeing and any new information. We remained calm and tried to take emotion out of our decisions as much as possible.

The emotional toll was significant in terms of wanting to keep all permanent staff employed. Keeping those staff was of utmost important to us – even if we didn’t make a cent and took a hit financially. We have a good group of staff and the impact of having to rebuild the following year without them would’ve been significant.

In 2018 the hail impact wasn’t as bad on our properties. However, we were under significant financial pressure with hail-damaged fruit still in the shed that was yet to be sold which carried a significant financial and emotional toll. In that sense, 2018 was actually much harder to deal with emotionally than 2017.

Jody Schultz, Appelinna Hills: Forest Rangehail lessons jody schultz

Like everybody else we looked around on Monday morning and it looked pretty bad. There were a lot of unknowns about what the hail marks on the fruit would look like at harvest and the hardest bit was predicting what portion of fruit would be saleable.

We looked at all blocks in the early days and found that most blocks were damaged significantly. Having our own direct markets, we couldn’t afford to sit out of the market for 12 months, so we had to decide whether we thought a reasonable portion of the fruit would be saleable. Because the damage was so widespread across our district, we felt that everyone would be in the same boat and hoped that the local market could sustain some damaged fruit.

In the end we decided to make the best of what we had and grow the crop pretty much as normal. We decided to write-off the worst blocks (high level of damage to low return varieties) and thin them as hard as we could with chemical thinners. Other than in those blocks, we didn’t do any more secondary chemical thinning as we didn’t want to remove any undamaged fruit. Ideally, we wanted to selectively remove this fruit by hand instead, even thoughwe weren’t sure we’d be able to do that cost-effectively.

In the end we decided to make the best of what we had and grow the crop pretty much as normal. – Jody Schultz

Our primary focus was on ensuring that we didn’t compromise our crop in the following year. Therefore, we continued to manage the orchard as normal in terms of pest and disease management, nutrition, irrigation, pruning etc. Hand thinning was not much different to normal apart from taking more care not to remove undamaged fruit. This increased cost was offset by the money we didn’t spend in blocks that we wrote off.

Ethephon was the most effective thinner for crop removal. It didn’t remove the crop completely but reduced it significantly and made it easier to manage. The return bloom in those blocks was strong as expected, but we don’t think that it was excessive. In hindsight, we probably wouldn’t have tipped any blocks off.

Our decisions around certain varieties would’ve also been different. The red coloured varieties hid the hail damage better and we would’ve continued to grow all of them. The yellow/green varieties (eg. Granny Smith, Golden Delicious) fared much worse than we hoped.

The 2018 storm was much more variable. The better blocks were better and the most-affected blocks were worse than the year before. The financial impact has been much worse because it has compounded the impact of 2017, even though the damage was overall less.

In terms of the emotional toll, initially it was heavier because we’d just finished selling the 2017 crop and had put that behind us, ready to move on to a new season with new hope. However, once we were able to come to terms with it, knowing how the first year ended up and how we managed to get through gave us more confidence to carry on and sell the crop again.

Graham Mason & Noel Mason, AG & HC Mason: Forest Range

hail lessons noel mason

hail lessons graham mason

We had never seen the extent of damage caused by the 2017 storm before, so trying to determine what the damage would look like at harvest was difficult. The decisions evolved over the first few days; we had to make some decisions early though as we had a massive crop and hadn’t finished our secondary thinning program.

Strong focus was placed on next year and not wanting any actions to negatively impact on the following crop. – Graham and Noel Mason

We tried to find a balance between having enough crop left to be able to selectively hand thin through and dropping as much badly damaged fruit as possible. A strong focus was placed on next year and not wanting any actions to negatively impact on the following crop.

We focused our assessments on what impact we thought we could have with our hand thinning program to improve packouts. Our decisions were based primarily on ensuring we had the best return crop we could next year but making the best of what we could with this year’s crop. This strategy came at quite a risk though as we could’ve spent a lot more money on the crop than what it was worth.

The best decisions we made were maintaining the balance of the trees and keeping in mind return bloom. As a result, our return bloom was unaffected.

Second time round we knew exactly what we needed to do and just carried on growing our crop as normal, just the same as the year before. Emotionally it was probably a bit harder deal with though.

Impacts of netting type on hail

Comprehensive damage assessments were carried out across orchards following on from the hail storms. From this information, a review was undertaken on the impact of different types of netting on reducing hail damage. The two South Australian hailstorms both featured several cold fronts of predominantly very fine “rice hail”.

The following conclusions can be drawn for these two hail events.

  • All types of hail netting provided some benefit in reducing both the amount of hail damage.
  • Hail netting also reduced the severity of hail damage, with less major damage of unsaleable fruit occurring under net
  • Quad netting (16 and 20 mm), which was typically installed on flat top trellis structures, was not as effective as rice hail netting installed on trellis release systems in reducing the amount of hail damage.
  • Smaller hole sizes in netting reduce the amount of damage from fine “rice hail.” However, when selecting the appropriate netting type and trellis system, other factors such as structural loading and light interception, as well as cost and the resultant cost benefit also need to be taken into account.

Key Tips

Despite some quite different strategies, all the growers had some common recommendations to make to others who may face this situation in the future.

  • Make a decision the best you can based on the information at hand and stick by it. You may make some wrong decisions but you can only do your best at the time.
  • Have a thorough look at the crop and the business before making any decisions. Don’t rush into it. It’s hard to know at the time what the outcome will be, so advice is to remain optimistic.
  • Don’t react by cutting inputs. By keeping up our nutrition, water and pest and disease programs we gave the trees the best chance to carry a big crop through to market the following year.
  • Every hailstorm is different. Back yourself in. Listen to others, collect as much information as you can but then make your decisions based on the facts at hand removing as much emotion as you can. Make the decision that’s best for your own business, not just because your neighbour is doing it.

As part of this Building preparedness of the fruit industry for extreme weather events, APGASA are also capturing key learnings from a broader industry perspective, which will be shared with other state organisations and APAL to ensure that industry bodies are well prepared to support industry in the event of a future disaster or emergency situation.

 

Acknowledgements

This project was funded under the Natural Disaster Resilience Program by the South Australian State Government and the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs. Views and findings associated with this initiative/project are expressed independently and do not necessarily represent the views of State and Commonwealth funding bodies.

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