Brad Fankhauser is a hard-working, passionate, fourth generation apple grower who is excited about the future of his orchard and the industry.
It seems that Brad was destined to become an apple grower. His ancestors settled in Melbourne in the 1850s and have grown apples along the banks of the Yarra, the Burwood Highway and all the way to Gippsland, where they now reside.
“My grandparents and my grandfather’s brothers used to own orchards between Dandenong Creek and Cathies Lane,” recalls Brad. His excitement and passion for the horticulture industry and the way it is heading is infectious – it’s no wonder he received APAL’s 2015 National Award for Excellence for Grower of the Year.
Brad’s parents Liz and Glynn purchased their current property in Drouin, Gippsland in 1978. Here they have 25 hectares and together with Brad, have recently purchased some land nearby that will add another 18 and a half hectares to their orchard.
The new orchard will be planted to high density, controlled or ‘club’ varieties. Planting has commenced and should be completed by 2020.
“The management of the new orchard will be more of an extension of what we’re currently doing,” says Brad. “The orchard is set up in a way so that it’s automated and more efficient – every block’s replicated. It will be a really simple system to manage – probably easier to manage that 18 hectares there, than two hectares here.”
Home of Alvina Gala
Fankhauser Apples grows a “nice balance of varieties”, according to Brad, which includes a handful of Golden Delicious; an even mix of Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, JazzTM and Pink LadyTM; and a couple of EnvyTM and SmittenTM test trees.
But as you drive into Fankhauser Apples it’s hard to miss the sign highlighting ‘Home of the Alvina Gala’. The other important variety that they grow, which they developed themselves.
“We took some cuttings from a Royal Gala block, and then one of the cuttings turned into a chance mutation of a high colour, full flavoured Gala,” says Brad.
“Alvina Gala was always going to be special to us, and production-wise it hit close to 90 tonne to the hectare this year. That makes me pretty happy,” he smiles.
Taking Alvina Gala to the world
It’s through strong community involvement that the Fankhausers have been able to introduce their Alvina Gala variety to growers locally and abroad.
“There’s several hundred thousand trees planted in Australia now. It’s been a long process with trials, evaluations and Plant Variety Rights applications,” explains Brad. “Everyone’s pretty quick to think we’re making a heap of money from royalties on our tree, but it has taken nearly 15 years to get to the point where we’re actually starting to generate an income.”
“Mum and Dad have participated in a few industry focused international trips where they’ve had the opportunity to meet nurserymen and growers from countries around the world. It’s during these trips they make connections – contacts lead to contacts and it grows from there.”
Tahune Nursery in Tasmania manages Alvina Gala for the Fankhausers. Tahune Nursery’s membership of the Australian Nurserymens Fruit Improvement Company Ltd (ANFIC) and Associated International Group of Nurseries (AIGN®) has helped develop Alvina Gala and the variety is now being tested in a range of countries including France, Belgium, South Africa and the USA. The Fankhausers themselves grow about three hectares of Alvina Galas, but because it is an open variety they have no control over who grows it, or where.
“Its real strength is in warmer climates where it does exceptionally well,” says Brad. “It colours before it matures, so appearance wise, it looks like it’s ready to harvest weeks before it’s mature. The real benefit of that in a hot climate is that once it is mature, you don’t have to wait for the colour to come through. This gives no excuses for soft apples early in the season.
“In hindsight, we could have happily kept Alvina to ourselves and we would probably have one of the most consistent blocks of Gala in the country. But we didn’t see it like that, we thought here’s a good apple, everyone should get a chance with this.”
Transition to high density
Aside from innovating in apple variety development, Brad is always on the lookout for better ways to manage his trees. He attended the recent Future Orchards® walk in the Gippsland area and is rolling out his ‘super slender spindle’ approach to tree density and canopy management across his blocks. The Fankhausers started the orchard’s transition from a traditional growing structure to higher density planting approximately 18 years ago.
“We had a block of Gala that we thought were high density as we’d moved the trees two feet closer within the tree line – we were basically doing the same thing but the trees were a little bit closer, we thought that was exciting, but quickly realised it wasn’t working,” explains Brad.
“We were running at about 350 trees a hectare, that’s the old traditional planting, then we increased to 550. We then doubled up and planted extra trees between them bringing it up to about 1,100 trees a hectare.
“Long story short, we got down to three meters and 0.8 metres between the trees but thought three metres was just a bit tight – offering no wriggle room to get tractors and machinery through. So we’ve settled on 3.3 metres by 0.8 metres.”
This new structure gives them about 3,800 trees to the hectare – more than 10 times what they started with. Brad suggests two important factors when transitioning from traditional systems to newer, higher density systems: having a supportive trellis and tree consistency.
“Last year when we started getting the high yields, nearly every lot of trellis we’ve got in the ground started to move – as a result we’re now installing longer and bigger poles to increase the trellis strength and support,” he says.
“It’s also imperative to have a nice, consistent, even tree and if you can maximise your tree row volume you will increase your production.”
While looking at one of his top performing blocks of Ruby Pink apples on M9 rootstock, Brad further explained that he works closely with his staff to get every branch pendulant, with the tip of the branch lower than where the branch comes out of the tree with well-spaced buds and calm fruiting wood.
Using this approach in this Ruby Pink block, he has achieved around 80 tonnes per hectare and an estimated 90 per cent or more pack out, with the apples destined for the UK.
Jazz, Envy and Smitten
Brad packs and markets around 50 per cent of his own apples that are sold through the Melbourne Wholesale Fruit, Vegetable and Flower Markets, and the rest are packed through Montague Fresh and Nine Mile Fresh. He has also planted a number of varieties managed by Montagues including Envy, Smitten and Jazz.
“Envy is going to be sensational, it’s a grower friendly apple which is going to have a good yield and size, it’s also got a good tree habit and ticks all the boxes for a grower,” says Brad.
“Smitten might be a little more challenging to get the yields and tree growth out of, but I think it will do all right for us if we plant it with the correct marketing plan behind it.”
Brad understands how successful a marketing campaign can be having first-hand experience with the Jazz movement.
“You know it’s amazing, mind-blowing even, that a successful marketing campaign can have such a strong influence over a product. The success of Jazz is due in a big part to the $3-a-carton marketing levy paid by the growers,” says Brad.
Since planting his first Jazz trees seven years ago Brad says it’s the best ‘excursion’ they’ve ever been on.
“You see Jazz everywhere, the product and the brand are so strong. At the end of the day we’re growers, not marketers but I’m starting to understand and appreciate how powerful a brand can be,” he says.
The encouragement to plant Jazz came from listening to the AgFirst speakers during the first rounds of Future Orchards walks that suggested participants be part of it and work out a way to get involved.
“I suppose I took their advice and went from there,” he recalls. “We’re very happy with the decision, I wish we had done it sooner and had planted more. We’re still planting Jazz now.”
Brad’s engagement in the industry, from attending orchard walks to his active role in the local community and fruit growing industry has helped him stay tuned into new ideas and become a leader for the industry.
He left school 23 years ago at the age of 16 and has worked on the family orchard since then. He became treasurer of Gippsland Fruit Growers when he was 17 and is still on the executive committee now as President. He is also a managing director on the board of Fruit Growers Victoria and sees volunteering as an important role in understanding the industry.
“Everyone should volunteer their time to do something, you get a better understanding of how the industry actually operates,” says Brad.
“It’s all well and good to have a really good understanding of your farm but you need to know how the industry operates to make your farm fit into that industry or more importantly, if you’re not happy with the way industry is going, do something to change it!”
“Get out there and become involved, develop new ideas and connections, you don’t know where they may lead.”
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