Don’t give up on your crop, was a key message from a meeting convened to help Goulburn Valley fruit growers affected by recent hail, because there is help available and clever marketing can also help to sell fruit that has survived the hail.
On Sunday 11 October, a short but intensive hail storm hit some fruit-growing areas of the Goulburn Valley, Victoria, affecting pear, apple and stone fruit orchards. The path of the storm passed through about 30 per cent of the plantings of apples and pears in the Goulburn Valley.
With input from eight local growers across 315 hectares, Fruit Growers Victoria (FGV) assessed the severity of the damage and per cent of fruit damaged (Table 1). In the area affected, FGV estimates that 65 per cent of pears have been damaged and 47 per cent of apples.
Victoria produces around 90 per cent of Australia’s pears and the Goulburn Valley is the main region for pear production. So any damage to the pear crop there could affect the entire nation’s pear supply.
FGV’s Véronique Froelich presented data supplied by SPC Ardmona showing that around 16,000 tonnes of pears could be lost. In 2013-14, Australia’s total pear crop was around 105,000 tonnes. So a loss, of 16,000 tonnes would represent a 15 per cent drop in production – if none of that fruit was salvageable (note this is a worst case scenario). However, this is all in the preliminary assessment done in the first few days after the storm and the stage of development of the crop is still in the cell division stage – so it’s early days.
Tony Filippi, FGV Industry Development Officer, explained that it was important for growers to re-assess their orchards in a few weeks’ time as the nature of the damage may not be immediately clear.
|Table 1: FGV assessment of fruit damaged.|
|Severity*||2.4 / 4||3 / 4|
|% of fruit damaged||47%||65%|
|* On a scale of 0 to 4, where 0 represents no damage and 4 represents irreparable damage.|
“You need to calculate the numbers of fruit still left on the tree and do a mock pack out based on first, second and juice grade to determine where you stand,” said Tony. “Before you invest in thinning, spraying and carrying the fruit to harvest – before you do any of that – start doing the figures to determine which way you should go.
“At the moment, what I have seen is that there is still fruit out there, it is damaged, but let’s wait and see how it goes first.”
He emphasised the importance of not abandoning the crop because it may still have value and because good orchard management will ensure trees are kept healthy and pests minimised – not just for the benefit of individual orchard blocks, but for the benefit of the entire region.
“The health of your trees is really important because next year they are going to be paying your bills and they will have to work harder to pay your bills so don’t put them in a situation where they can’t do it.”
Orchards can be affected by hail in all sorts of ways from leaves and fruit being stripped from the tree to damage to flowers or bark. Orchard management after hail damage is essential to the health of the trees and the fruit yield and quality. Different management measures need to be taken depending on the severity of the damage.
Petar Bursac, who has recently joined FGV as a new Industry Development Officer, outlined the recovery steps following hail damage that growers can take.
“After hail we have perfect conditions for disease development,” said Petar. “The two most important diseases at this time are apple scab and brown rot, so fungicide treatment needs to be done immediately after hail damage.
“Fungicide treatments include both preventative and curative treatments.”
Petar further explained that different fungicides may also contain zinc, which encourages plant growth, or manganese, which inhibits plant growth. Fungicides should be selected and used with these additional properties in mind depending on the outcome sought.
Other key points that FGV recommends to manage hail-damaged trees:
- Hail wounds need fungicides to prevent disease entry.
- Severely damaged stems and branches should be pruned.
- Remove fruit that has fallen to the ground.
- Replace young trees if severely damaged.
- Fertilise and irrigate at optimum levels to reduce stress.
- Regularly inspect for pests and diseases.
- Large wounds should be covered with a water-based paint.
- Summer pruning to retrain young trees and optimise growth.
- Use fruit thinning selectively to remove hail-damaged fruit and to improve the quality of remaining fruit.
FGV reminded growers again that if too many growers walk away from their orchards, a pest problem may develop that could affect everyone. They emphasised that help was at hand so talk to them or your local agronomist for help.
Market tolerance of affected fruit
Growers should be careful not to remove too much fruit during thinning after the hail damage, because there may be more marketable fruit than first appears.
“Once you take it off – that’s it – it’s gone,” said Tony. “If there are new market opportunities for different types of fruit in one to two months’ time – closer to harvest – if you have already taken the fruit off in the next couple of weeks, it’s too late, you can’t pursue those market opportunities.
“Find out how much remaining fruit of Class 1 and 2, canning, juicing quality is left. Directing to canning and juice may be an option if it is financially viable.”
Tony presented the outputs of a spreadsheet in a table that showed the difference in return if a few more per cent of Class 2 fruit could be reclassified as Class 1 fruit.
He suggested that there will be work to be done with fruit buyers to consider extending the market specifications for fruit to accept different looking fruit, which is still as tasty and nutritious, as Class 1 fruit.
“Talk to your buyers because maybe they can help find markets for it too – these are also the sorts of ideas we can explore as a group,” Tony said.
Our ‘Hailstorm Heroes’
Olivia Tait, APAL’s Market Development Manager, shared some preliminary marketing ideas to turn any pears affected by the hail into a positive and exciting marketing campaign.
“These pears are our ‘Hailstorm Heroes’,” said Olivia. “These pears will wear some battle scars, but they’ve survived and that survival needs to be celebrated.
“We’ve got a job convincing the retailers to change their specifications to accept this fruit, and we have to encourage consumers to reward this fruit rather than discard it.”
APAL has already started organising a pear promotional campaign that embraces the Hailstorm Heroes.
Deciding how to manage a hail-affected orchard also depends on what else is happening across the business and in people’s lives.
Thomas Chick, Kyabram Rural Financial Counsellor at Goulburn Murray Hume Agcare offered assistance and counsel across finance and business management to help growers tackle the challenge.
“What’s the most important thing on your orchard – I’m looking at it – it’s you,” said Tom. “Our service can help you get through this.”
Goulburn Murray Hume Agcare is a non-profit organisation funded by the State and Federal Government that provides free help to farmers in times of financial difficulty.
“Our service is free and confidential,” Tom explained. “We deal with individuals, whatever is discussed is between you and your counsel. We are impartial and we don’t form judgements.
“Our role is to assist farmers to understand their financial position – determine what costs are coming up and help figure out how they can be paid such as in instalments or deferred.
“If you plan for it, we can find ways to manage it, but if you ignore it your problems can get bigger.”
Tom outlined other help that was available through Centrelink including the Farm Household Allowance that provides financial help for farmers during difficult times. For more information on this allowance contact their Farmer Assistance Hotline on 132 316.
All presentations from the meeting are available by contacting FGV.