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Lessons learnt from Covid-19

Industry Best Practice

The impact the Covid-19 virus has had on the world is unprecedented. The level and type of threat varies greatly across each business meaning decisions have had to be made to assess the exposure and prepare the response plans to ensure they can generate sufficient cash to survive.

In the orchard business, we are somewhat lucky, as people within Australia and around the globe need to eat. They want to prioritise healthy eating, and apples and pears are recognised as an excellent source of nutrition. So, as long as our markets continue to operate successfully, fruit will be sold, and orchard businesses are an essential industry that will continue in a pandemic scenario.

The pandemic has however brought home some hard realities, lessons learnt from which offer us the opportunity to be more effective and successful growers in future.

Covid-19 has made us more attuned to and focused upon:

  • understanding the economic viability of each block,
  • identifying and understanding how to manage risk,
  • the significant impacts a health (or food safety) incident can have within the orchard,
  • the impact on and value of our workforce, and
  • the importance of future proofing the business.

Every grower and every business will be unique in terms of labour supply, aversion to risk, available capital, and block performance. It is now up to us to make the best individual decisions for our businesses to succeed both during this global pandemic and beyond.

Understanding block performance

Before maximising our opportunities, or minimising our risk, we must first understand our situation at hand. Every orchard and every block is different and the hard decisions we make come down to our available resources. Although most growers would be broadly aware of their overall economic position, Covid-19 has forced us to home in on and analyse individual block performance to enable us to prioritise money makers over money losers.

Labour resources at harvest are one of the greatest potential pinch points for growers. There is no one size fits all solution. Every harvest sees unique peaks and troughs in labour demand. Limited labour supply due to Covid-19 travel restrictions has simply intensified these peaks.

Harvest planning and maturity monitoring should be used to predict where the pinch points are likely to occur. Manipulation of harvest timing should be utilised as much as possible to minimise these conflicts. Opportunities to change harvest timing exist from the beginning to the end of the production cycle. Even with harvest timing of the blocks teased out as much as possible, there is still likely that there will be labour pinch points and some tough decisions to be made over which blocks (or picks within blocks) are picked and which miss out. These decisions need to be made with the best information available, to achieve the best outcome for the orchard business.  To inform this we need to fully understand the profitability of each block to the business.

Armed with an understanding of the economic position of each block, we can make constructive decisions on the time and effort required to continue to be successful in a pandemic situation. The New Zealand experience has included some growers making the hard decision to prematurely remove blocks from production. Australian growers not confident of/or unable to secure sufficient labour may see merit in pulling a block early that is financially marginal and was set to come out in the next 1–3 years. Alternatively growing for juice also reduces labour demand as it eliminates hand thinning and allows harvest to happen as labour allows rather than to strict maturity window.

Understanding a block’s performance needs robust analysis over multiple years to get a good gauge of the entire picture. Not only does that mean assessing production data (and the potential for improvement) but also understanding how the market is performing and deciding whether the financial returns are likely to justify the overall effort and risk.

Covid-19 has taught us to be vigilant. The labour shortage brought on by Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the need to understand where value can be added.

Managing risks – farming smarter not harder

Another area in which orchardists have improved because of the global pandemic is identifying risk and developing the capability to manage it. Obviously, some risks such as climatic events are uncontrollable but there are always ways in which we can put ourselves in a better position to handle such events. Covid-19 has challenged us to become more professional in our business decisions, focusing on identifying problems before they eventuate to help ensure each season is a success. Furthermore, creating strategies to manage that risk has also become part of our day-to-day thinking.

We have learnt to optimise the resources available to get the best results for our orchard business. Extracting the greatest financial gains both for this season and for the future, through minimising potential risks as well as optimising overall orchard results is our ultimate goal. However, what is best for one orchard may not be best for others. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of working to your strengths and managing your weaknesses, identifying risks and rewards and planning to maximise your results.

One of the underlying risks brought into sharp relief by Covid-19 is the uncertainty of labour. Most fruit growers are well aware of the risks of an unsecured seasonal workforce and this has been a focus of Future Orchards discussions in the past. Now, with Australian borders under heavy restrictions, there has been a sharp reduction in labour pools available from traditional sources such as backpackers and Pacific Islands labour schemes. To reduce this risk in the future we need to improve our access to a secure labour supply. We need to make sure our orchards are seen as attractive workplaces for the workers. We also need to focus forward and make the labour needs as streamlined as possible by expanding and securing access to proven experienced labour. We have tools available to plan our harvest from very early in the season. As outlined above, we can manipulate the harvest in individual blocks, reducing the peaks and the troughs within our specific orchards. Set heavy or light crop loads at pruning and thinning. Use harvest shifting tools such as dormancy breakers, and harvest delay products such as ReTain™ and Harvista™. With good use of the various tools available, we can maximise the effectiveness of our available labour teams.

It is highly likely that we will not achieve our entire harvest wish list, but we can identify what our greatest limiting factors are and where we are going to get the best gains from our efforts. In general, lifting orchard efficiency means lifting labour efficiency. This means harvest planning becomes vital. In previous years if labour was short or late, we might have picked slightly more mature fruit, this year it is almost a guarantee that fruit will be left on the tree. It is up to our harvest planning and communication with labour suppliers and other orchardists to reduce that amount of fruit left on the tree.

Turning to tech

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that the three largest assets to an orchard business and the three largest risks, are labour, labour, labour! Prior to Covid-19, we knew labour was challenging, but the Covid-19 related shortage of traditional labour supplies of the past year has made it apparent that we need to pivot quickly to new systems that not only maximise labour efficiency, but also make orchard work more amenable and enjoyable to a wider demographic of our society.

Let’s face it, what proportion of our working society with no orchard experience is capable of picking apples with a 20 kg bag around their neck while climbing a ladder at the same time. We estimate it might be as low as 5–10 per cent. With borders open and young backpackers in good supply, that might have been enough, but in a pandemic it was not. Europe was one of the first regions that adopted platform technology driven largely by the need to employ the entire family including grandma and grandad to harvest the crop. Now Australia and NZ are moving quickly into platform technology driven by the urgent need to be able to both employ a wider demographic of staff and boost the productivity of new or less experienced workers.

Simply bringing in platforms is unlikely to be enough. With orcharding heavily reliant on labour, and the cost of labour continuing to increase, the pandemic has taught us that we need to pivot much faster to be able to reduce the labour requirement per kg of fruit. We have to seriously consider all technology that will enable us to achieve that. Technologies are likely to include:

  • Orchard systems capable of high yield accumulation and high Class 1 yield at maturity (as higher yield reduces costs per kg)
  • 2D or very narrow canopies that are capable of platform technology, mechanical pruning, over row spraying and even robotic harvesting in the future
  • Narrower row spacings that could allow no ladder, pedestrian orchards, but still high yields
  • Well laid out orchards that will facilitate over autonomous spraying, mowing, weed spraying.

Figure 1 Semi pedestrian 6th leaf Pink Lady planted on the Guyot system Italy (131 tonnes per ha). Photo: Dr Alberto Doregoni S Giusto Orchards Fruili Italy.

The technology is coming to facilitate this change. What the pandemic has taught us is to be continually looking for ways to reduce costs and minimise risks and to start down the journey of assessing if or how new technology can achieve this for your business

Food safety

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how disruptive public health incidents can be to our day-to-day life within our orchard businesses.

Fruit growing in a global pandemic also means more responsibility falls on more of our staff. People have had to become more vigilant as hygiene goes from a routine business practice to a top-of-the-list priority.

This begs the question of how seriously we have taken the risk of a public health incident, or a food safety incident pre-Covid-19 and how we might adapt new hygiene practices developed during Covid-19 hygiene to minimising risk in future.

During the three-year NZ Apple Futures Program the possibility of a food safety incident was identified as a potential risk to the industry.

If a food safety incident were to develop it is likely that this would be potentially more of an issue for the specific groups that are involved than the current pandemic crisis. The pandemic solutions are being found at a government and even global level not focused on blame or please explain to a small group within the community. We need to ensure that keep a focus on hygiene going forward.

A valuable asset

One of the most noticeable influences Covid-19 has had is on our people. Yes, overall, it has created dramatic labour shortages as our overseas labour pools diminish, and our more vulnerable workers are forced into unemployment. However, if we are thinking about what Covid-19 has taught us, it has given us a reason to realise how valuable our hard workers are to our businesses. Alternatively, it has shown us how exposed our businesses are to our reliance on our people. We have had to think, what if I wake up tomorrow and there is an outbreak within the orchard community? Obviously, staff health and safety come first, but from an orcharding perspective, what is plan B?

We have quickly learnt that the cost of labour/kg can rise rapidly. This can be due to a drop in productivity from workers new to the industry, or simply the rules of supply and demand from employees asking for more money, or they are out the door and off to the next orchard with the same request. Labour is and forever will be the greatest cost to fruit growers, period. Labour efficiency then becomes of increasing importance.

We have learnt to be smart in managing a different demographic of people. Growers have greatly benefitted from this by learning to look for people’s strengths and to then utilise them to best effect. People may become twice as productive with the elimination of the part of the job they are not good at, or simply do not enjoy. For our older workers this may be achieved by simply taking away the ladder and asking them to reach everything they can in a thinning or harvest scenario. Instantly you take away the part of the job that physically and mentally strains them day to day, making them a happier, more efficient worker.

We have learnt that people are everything in our industry and from that we have a greater understanding and appreciation for hard work and the importance of working to attract and retain good workers.

Importance of future proofing your business- technology advancements

Covid-19 has challenged us to look to the future to identify possible opportunities to better our businesses in a pandemic environment. It has taught us to be forward thinking. How can an orcharding operation stay at a level of efficiency with limited labour. Labour efficiency may stem from training, structure, or a leap beyond to platform or robotic technology.

Figure 2: Revo platform harvesting at Plunkett Orchards Australia. Photo: courtesy of Jason Shields, Plunkett Orchards.

Robotics are still years away from being at a level where they are as or more efficient than a human picker, however platforms are at a stage now where if you have the orchard fit for purpose, they are a great way to open up a new demographic of workers. Therefore, creating a larger pool of possible employees ready to take on harvest or other peak periods in the orcharding calendar puts you in a position of strength.

Attracting people into an orcharding business can be difficult. Orcharding is hard work and we continue to do what we can to get the best out of people. In a world where Covid-19 remains a big part of day-to-day life, positivity around the workplace becomes extremely important.  Not only does that attract people into the business it attracts the best people. As stated earlier, people are everything in this industry. If we treat people right, a good chunk of future proofing our business is done for us.

 

Conclusion

If it is not already extremely clear, Covid-19 has had a dramatic influence on the Australian pipfruit industry, particularly around labour supply. Growers have been challenged throughout the year with numerous curveballs. However, with a can-do attitude, they have put themselves in a position to overcome and learn from what has been a Covid-19 dominated year.

As we look to the future, we continue to grow a top-quality product with similar goals and a shake-up of priorities within our orchards. We have learnt that labour will be short in places, the people we do get are of extreme value. We have learnt to look for ways to increase labour efficiency which stems from working to our strengths and minimising our weaknesses, taking opportunities and managing risks.

We have learnt that we can become smarter growers by looking at the big picture and thinking about what can be done through advance planning to reduce the pinch points bought on by Covid-19.

The people of Australia and around the globe need to eat. To our industry’s benefit, they want to prioritise healthy eating and apples and pears are a part of the solution. So as long as we can get the best quality fruit picked and packed and the markets continue to operate successfully, our fruit will be sold, and businesses will continue to operate in a pandemic scenario and beyond.

At the end of the day, we have learnt that while we are an essential industry for our country, we cannot take this for granted. Every grower and every business will be unique in terms of labour supply, aversion to risk, available capital, and block performance. It is now up to us to make the best decisions for our businesses to succeed in a global pandemic.

Over everything, Covid-19 has taught us how to become more aware. Aware of our businesses, and aware of our people, through necessity this will make us better growers.

 

 

 

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