News & Resources

Stay up-to-date with the latest industry news. Sign-up for alerts, tips and advice, research and industry invitations delivered straight to your inbox – Sign-Up

Improving labour productivity in orchards

Research & Extension

The Future Orchards® March 2015 orchard walks looked at ways to review the performance of our current season in 2015 as well as ways to improve on farm labour productivity.








These harvest orchard walks asked the question: Have orchard blocks met expectations for the year?

Harvest is a time when the results of management are in full view. It is usually a busy time of year, with very few opportunities to look at those key components of individual blocks. Often there is nothing worse than going back a month or so later and saying “can’t quite remember” or “it was OK I guess.”

The main components that need to be looked at are the total yields, average fruit size, maturity, colour, pest and disease, tree growth and tree condition. These are often interlinked, for example, a tree carrying too much crop can be harder to colour, harder to size, and consequently be picked at a less than optimum maturity. Chasing better colour and size late can often be to the detriment of storability. If this was the case what could be done differently next time?

Within blocks, it is normally clear what the problems are, particularly the obvious ones such as yield, size and colour issues. The next step is to get an understanding of the likely agronomic reasons for the problem. It is common to find excess vigour, but is it caused by lack of crop, poor pruning, is it a biennial bearing problem, or is it too much nutrition or water? These are all possible causes of too much vigour, but each of these would be dealt with differently so it is important to accurately identify the causes of these problems.

Ensuring we learn from each year is critical, but by harvest time the fruit on the tree is what it is and cannot be changed. The main thing is to ensure that it is picked as efficiently as possible.


Speaking on ‘Integration of Labour, Orchard Systems and Mechanisation’ at these orchard walks was Karen Lewis, Regional Specialist Tree Fruit Production, Washington State University.

From the orchard walks it became apparent that for some regions the uptake of mechanical assist has been slow, however the interest is clearly there. The mechanisation we saw was mostly in the form of platforms with very little mechanical thinning and pruning happening. For growers who have invested and been successful in high density planting, mechanisation can provide a lot of opportunities to optimise that investment even further. There is a lot of opportunity for more development and demonstration of this in the Australian apple and pear industry.

A picking platform on display in South Australia.


The main point to remember is mechanisation is just one aspect of improving labour productivity and may not yet be suitable for a particular orchard right now. It is therefore important to focus on labour productivity and commit to SNAP canopies (simple, narrow, accessible and productive). These systems are designed to improve labour productivity, get more uniformity right through the block and are less complex. This makes it an easier environment for new or inexperienced workers to operate in, which makes the business more competitive at attracting labour because it is nicer to work in a uniform orchard.

Benefits of a simple, narrow, high density orchard

In her presentation Karen outlined the characteristics of a simple, narrow, high density orchard:

  • Canopy thickness: 20-90cm
  • Tree height: 2.7-3.5m
  • Row spacing: 3-3.5m
  • Tree spacing: 0.75-2.5m

She also explained how picking platforms can improve labour efficiency in the orchard:

In Washington State, growers have looked worldwide to find manufacturers of orchard mechanical assist equipment. For their orchard systems, what was available was mostly unsuitable so a lot of what is being purchased currently is being made locally in the United States. Local production provides the advantage of local serviceability and access to parts in case a breakdown occurs. This has also allowed for machines to be adapted to their type of horticultural system.

During her presentation Karen asked the audience: How do we make labour more efficient? She said, it is bringing the bin closer to the picker, but still picking into a bag. Pickers already pick at a fast enough rate, which is into a bag. Any time a person has to turn and place the bag onto a conveyor belt it slows them down.

There are too many considerations to list here when choosing the right machine and this is all discussed in Karen Lewis’ notes in the Future Orchards library on APAL’s website.



Future Orchards machinery and mechanisation orchard design and density

Go Back to Latest News