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Know your costs and plan well to get best from technology and labour

Industry Best Practice

New technology and orchard systems will help drive efficiencies and cost savings ‘Beyond 2022’ but understanding costs will be key to identifying what best suits individual circumstances, attendees at Fruit Growers Victoria’s conference heard on Thursday.

It was third time lucky for the “Beyond 2022 – Orchard & Packing Technology” conference – postponed in both 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 restrictions – which delivered a packed program covering automation, orchard systems, traceability and labour to over 200 attendees at the Eastbank Centre in Shepparton.

Attendees were given a glimpse of what technology, ranging from platforms, defoliators and autodrive tractors to automated packing tech, could mean to their businesses but a reminder that technology was not a replacement for good orchard management.

Set a timer on poor performing blocks

Visiting Washington State orchardist Chris Peters said while robotic pickers were still a little way off, any technology that increased yield of premium fruit or decreased cost structures was worth implementing.

Management, pruning and chemical thinning could also significantly improve premium yield.

Chris Peters, Washington State, advocates a focus on quality and understanding cost structures.

“If you can grow one or two boxes more of premium fruit it will make a big difference,” he said. “It’s a hard one, but if you can grow special fruit you might be able to squeeze an extra couple of bucks.”

Chris stressed the importance of understanding cost structures and not carrying underperforming blocks.

“If you’ve got a block that is not performing, set a timer on it,” he said. “Try A,B and C and if it doesn’t work in that time frame, draw a line under it.”

Cut out the dead wood

South Australian grower Rob Green, Oakleigh Orchard, echoed this view saying with the challenges facing the industry, it was crucial to understand at a block level what was making money and what was not and to make informed decisions.

“There’s no point saying ‘oh, next year will be better’,” he said. “The easy thing to do is nothing to leave them there and do the same thing next year.

“Now more than ever, if it’s not a first-class piece of fruit, it starts costing you money immediately. Sometimes you have to start pruning and cut out the dead wood. “

Rob likened apple growing to captaining a super tanker. “It takes a long time to turn around,” he said.  “You really want to be planning and trying to pick where you need to be in five- or six-years’ time, because that’s how long it takes to actually get there.”

 

Guyot

Italian researcher and tree architecture consultant Alberto Dorigoni – appearing virtually from Fruili, Italy – said he saw vertical 2D systems, which could accommodate mechanical operations, as best suited to the

future.

Of those currently in use, he argued the multi leader ‘Guyot’ system (referencing a grape training system developed in the late 19th Century) offered higher efficiency and was better suited to precision agriculture.

In the Guyot system, the vertical leader is bent horizontally and as a result, the ‘horizontal’ branches grow vertically, lending itself to very high-density plantings and, Alberto said, removing the need for hours of labour tying down branches.

“Trees love to grow vertically and do not like to grow horizontally,” Alberto said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alberto said a benefit was that for the entire life of the orchard renewal wood of older wood with started at the same height just 0.5m from the ground, theoretically making the system last longer, but he conceded there were significant set up costs in the early years.

Labour planning key

Approved Employers Association of Australia Executive Officer Steve Burdette outlined the labour situation heading into the new season and said although there had been a sharp increase in visa approvals in the past six months, labour would continue to be in tight supply.

“The days of flicking your fingers and saying I can pull in so many backpackers to harvest my crop, I’d say those days are gone,” he said. “We’re now looking at planning well in advance and the way you treat your workers is critical because they will just go somewhere else.”

Steve said while there were 24,000 Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) program worker in the country, of which two thirds were in horticulture, there was pressure to extend the scheme into sectors such as aged care and hospitality, which were also short of labour.

He said there was still considerable uncertainty about the number of workers that would be available via the PALM scheme and about the future of the AgVisa. Having a range of sources of workers would reduce risk,  and collaboration and portability of workers between sites would be increasingly important.

Businesses thinking of becoming approved employers under the PALM program were advised to allow 6—9 months for approval and a further 3—6 months to get people into the country.

“So forward planning is the key,” he said. “I cannot emphasise it more.”

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