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‘Figures man’ builds performance by numbers

Industry Best Practice
jason shields profile

Photo: Abram Rasmussen, Abram Rasmussen Photography

Jason Shields from Plunkett Orchards needs little introduction to the Australian apple and pear – and now wider horticulture – industry since receiving the 2019 National Awards for Excellence Grower of the Year for both APAL and Hort Connections.

Jason oozes passion, drive and determination and one key element that sets him apart from many: his willingness to share knowledge and information. His strong business acumen shows he’s acutely aware of Plunkett Orchards’ core business, working towards improving their commercial performance and setting industry standards for best practice. The introduction of picking platforms alone has given the business access to a larger pool of potential employees while removing various hazards that come with the use of ladders and bags.

During a demonstration of the new picking platforms at the 2019 Autumn Future Orchards® walk, Jason shared the benefits and opportunities that come from using no bags, trailers, tractors or ladders. “There’s no one running down the rows in front of the machinery where they are actually working,” Jason said. “Our staff need less training — we can put a person on the platform and once they’re used to the movement, they pick the same amount of fruit at the start of the season as they do at the end.”

Removing bags provides relief for pickers’ backs and improves fruit quality, helping avoid bruising and stem punctures. “Our biggest problem with rejects would happen as the fruit was coming off the tree, now the only time one piece of fruit touches another is in the bin.”

The first platforms came from Frumaco in Italy and were purchased in 2015 after Plunkett Orchards owner Andrew Plunkett saw them in action at Fruit Logistica, Berlin. “Our first two platforms were ordered ‘as is’, but we needed to make some modifications once they arrived to accommodate our row spaces,” Jason said.

“They were so effective and efficient in terms of picking, pruning and other orchard practices that Andrew ordered another two that same year.”

They now have seven platforms — the newest three from REVO in Italy — and this is the first season they’ve picked using just platforms. At approximately $130,000 per machine they are an investment that Jason has costed out at just $3 per bin.

“We need seven per cent efficiency to make it work and the machines have done that – this technology has turned a person that would usually pick two bins into one that picks four,” Jason said.

Fact-based decision-making

Jason joined Plunketts 20 years ago in January as fourth-generation grower Andrew Plunkett returned to work in the business. “They’d just bought 200 acres down the road, Andrew was focused on the packing side of things – they really needed someone to grow their fruit,” Jason said.

The Plunkett Orchards team now numbers around 30. Noel Plunkett (Andrew’s Dad) still gets out in the business and oversees the packing shed activity. Andrew is guided by Jason on orchard management and decisions are made on fact and worth as opposed to sentimental value. “The old original trees planted by Andrew’s great grandfather became a bonfire, it was an emotional event but the trees were Williams pears and they were losing money,” Jason said. “I’m removed from the sentimental element and make decisions based on the figures.

jason shields profile REVO platform

Jason Shields demonstrated the benefits and use of REVO platforms during the Autumn Future Orchards® walk in the Goulburn Valley.

“It was challenging to get these decisions past the family 10 years ago but not so much now, I just need to show them the numbers and how much money they’re losing.

“It’s also important to look past how much, for example, your pears are making and really break it down to understand the value of each block.”

This was sharply illustrated in an example he gave at another Future Orchards event a few years ago, of two pear blocks. “Both blocks were the same age, on different growing systems and all up were making about $50,000,” he said.

“In reality, one of them was making minus $10,000 and the other $60,000. So, $50,000 for the five hectares (ha) looked good – but it could have been more money over just 2.5ha.

“I keep a running total for every block from when it’s been planted up to now and if it’s positive that’s great. But if it’s trending negative for three years and we can’t see any improvement we review, because once you get to losing money what’s the point? You’re better off investing in something that’s going to make you money.”

Plunketts has planted between 10–20ha annually for the past 10 years and Jason estimates they’ve pulled out about 10ha each year. “The actual total area hasn’t really changed,” Jason said.

Their focus has always been on fruit that grows well in the Goulburn Valley climate and the challenge is to find the next suitable variety for the area. “People often ask why we don’t diversify, as there’s a variety of fruit grown in our region, but we’re not plum or cherry growers, it’s important to focus on what you do well and that’s apples and pears for us,” Jason said.

Grower of the Year and Plunkett Orchards orchard manager of 20 years, Jason Shields.
Photo: Abram Rasmussen

Figures key to performance

Jason refers to himself as a ‘figures man’. Although he didn’t do well in school, and still doesn’t like to be in a controlled learning environment, he thrives on understanding performance.

“As a triathlete and triathlon coach I understand that figures prove performance,” he said. “I need to show why something isn’t working and unfortunately, I find a lot of people don’t go that far. They just take the ‘in’ and the ‘out’ for the year, look at the number and as long as that’s positive, they’re happy.

“If only they could get rid of their bad 30 per cent, then their profit margin becomes bigger.”

Implementing systems like Tie Up Farming and Asana has helped with oversight and enabled instantaneous communication with the orchard team. “Previously we were paper-based, everything would be written down in the orchard and partly entered by one of the managers who would then pass it onto me – I actually hate entering data so it was never a top priority,” Jason said.

“By the time I had the data I wanted we’d finished picking apples, so I knew what it cost but couldn’t do anything to change it.

“Now with live data I can look at the app each night and know how much that day has cost us.”

They started using the new systems about two years ago and while Jason admits it’s still a work in progress, they’re moving in the right direction. Data is now entered into iPads in the field which reduces touchpoints and gives back time.

“We’re at a point where we’ve got the production pretty good, we’ve got the picking, thinning and pruning around world-standard, average pricing. Now I’m working on the ‘other’ cost – which is all the other stuff we do that costs nearly as much as production,” Jason said.

“Most people base the cost of a bin on picking, thinning and pruning expenses, but they don’t include everything else which could be an additional $50–$80 per bin. With this system we can split those jobs and assign tasks, I can give the tractor drivers direction and say this should be half a day’s work here and half a day’s work there and they can mark the job as complete.

“I can also send a notification outlining what needs to be done that day – it’s made logistics and communication much easier.”

Prior to introducing the platforms several people would be spread across the orchards with separate top and bottom gangs. “We had different supervisors looking after the top and the bottom, there were groups of people everywhere,” Jason said.

“We now group them in teams of six on a platform with three platforms together, one supervisor oversees 18 people and instead of driving from farm to farm he spends the day with everyone physically within 15 metres.

“The biggest advantage of this is our gang costs went from $12–$14 per bin to $3–$5 per bin so we actually paid for the platforms in the supervision side of it regardless of the efficiencies.

“Everything is set up on Asana and I can estimate the time it will take to complete an activity in a particular block. Say there’s three hectares of trees which would take 312 hours to prune, if there’s six people on each machine, a block should take two days and with three machines it would take 101 minutes to complete a row. As soon as they’ve done the first row they know whether they’re under or over the estimated time.”

Changing systems can be challenging for a variety of reasons – a new system is unknown, it may not talk to an existing one, and it takes time and effort in setting up and learning the new system. All barriers to adopting new technology.

“Because Tie Up Farming is a start-up some people ask me what happens if in five years’ time they go out of business? Well, it’s no different to what happens with other companies that cease trading. You still have that data and can always export it. If it’s not all in the same system it doesn’t really matter, you know where your starting point is,” Jason said.

“I’d say the biggest hesitation is most farmers enjoy being in the orchard, that’s why they need to look at employing someone to focus on their business management so they can do what they want to. Noel Plunkett is a perfect example of this – he doesn’t want to look at numbers to the point he doesn’t really see them, he trusts that we’re basing a decision off a proven reason.

“We also needed to convince a few workers we weren’t introducing these new systems to get them into trouble but it was a way to plan their workload and provide additional support if necessary.”

jason shields profile mealy bug pest

Jason Shields checking for mealy bug. In order to address an issue with mealy bug a few years ago, Jason decided to stop spraying chemicals to control the pest – now there’s no sign of the pest in the orchard.
Photo: Abram Rasmussen

Letting nature take its course

Jason is seen as a leader in the industry for the whole-systems package he’s introduced. Aside from the platforms and software, he has been working with Angelica Cameron and Paul Horne from IPM Technologies to control pests and diseases for almost 10 years.

“I had a real ‘aha’ moment talking to Paul one day where I understood that the more we sprayed for pests and diseases, the bigger failure we had,” Jason said.

“We were using all the chemistry we were told is soft, which was opening us up to outbreaks. We were killing all the beneficials without knowing it, and not controlling those we were using the chemicals for, so were ending up with a much worse result.

“It’s so important to consider your beneficials in the orchard before you apply chemicals. Paul said to me: ‘nothing’s 100 per cent-guaranteed so, if you rely on chemistry for control, you need to expect some percentage of failure. You’ll also have no backup because all your beneficials are gone due to taking a chemical-based approach’.

“Instead of taking a reactive approach, we now analyse what the consequence might be if we were to spray – because sometimes the consequence is worse than the problem. We had an issue with mealy bug two years ago, bit the bullet and stopped spraying and now there’s no trace of it!”

Jason stresses they’re not trying to reduce their use of chemicals altogether, but are wanting to get to the minimum amount necessary. “We try and encourage everything else that will help us use less chemical. The orchard has always looked nice and clean, whereas this year we’ve let the weeds grow and kind of go out of control. This has an impact on soil health, encouraging a healthier tree that is better equipped to fight pest and disease.

“If the tree’s healthy it will use its own fighting defence mechanisms to control the issue. We’re at the point of 90 per cent natural control and only using chemistry for the other 10 per cent. I was super surprised with how fast it worked – just crazily fast.”

jason shields weed growth healthier tree

Encouraging weed growth in the orchard has an impact on soil health which can encourage a healthier tree.

“This was one of the worst mite pressure years we’ve had. In January everyone asked how we were controlling mite and I said we weren’t spraying anything – in a 48-hour period I had five people call me a liar. So, I double-checked with our guys who meticulously went out and ended up finding a small amount along one channel. The next day I saw Elizabeth Mace (GV Crop Protection) and she said ‘your blocks are amazing, there’s not a mite in sight’ and she’d checked that same block where the trace had been found.

“We haven’t sprayed a secondary pest insecticide this year for mealy bug, scale, mite or woolly aphid – not one. And they’re all the expensive sprays.

“We didn’t chase (the pests), we left them and the trees to their devices, just used the chemistry that we knew was safe for beneficials. There’s a choice of about four chemicals, it’s pretty easy, you just have to put them in the right place to maximise the benefit, because you have nothing else to fall back on.”

They also changed spray pumps to ensure better coverage, chopped down trees to alleviate pressure and made sure they understood the consequences of not using chemicals for control.

What’s next?

Jason is incredibly creative and once he’s proven an idea can be achieved sets about creating it. During the APAL study tour to Europe last year he saw some next-level systems and structures that he believes will be the norm in 20 years’ time.

“While we were in Italy I wasn’t overly inspired by what we saw on the ground, but I hired a car and took my bike so I could ride around the hills – the bird’s eye view of this orchard was amazing and that’s where my next idea has come from,” Jason said.

The concept called Guyro System is growing vineyard-style and brings a whole new meaning to pedestrian orchards, rows can be closer – so close in fact, tractors and bins won’t be able to fit but can be replaced by a conveyor belt with seats so pickers can sit down.

Watch this space…


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