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Lightbulb moments make for orchard innovations

Research & Extension

Author:
Angus Crawford
Technical Manager, APAL
03 9329 3511
acrawford@apal.org.au

For the few that missed it, a wave of momentum was seen in the industry during the most recent round of Future Orchards® walks held in July, which were attended by nearly 350 growers Australia-wide.  Two growers, Mark

Trzaskoma and David Finger, who have been active with Future Orchards were invited to share their stories as guest presenters at the July orchard walks. While both growers differ in their orchard management styles, they told participants of the lightbulb moments that led them to make fundamental changes in how they operate.

Vernview Orchards

David Finger and his wife Sue operate Vernview Orchards at Launching Place, located in the Yarra Valley, Victoria. Prior to the change in production methods and variety management, David reflects on the amount of hard work they were doing in the early days. “We were stuck into trying to make something work that wasnt going to be suitable going forward, says David. At the time, Vernview was running a combination of semi intensive plantings (e.g. 4m x 1.5m), as well as the older style (e.g. 6m x 4.5m) and were seriously considering whether they should continue orcharding or not.

David Finger demonstrating step grafting.

The key for us was going to a seminar called succession or sell, says David. After going through it all it didnt really matter whether you had someone coming home to operate the property or whether you were going to sell. “Either way, it had to be profitable otherwise the kids wouldn’t come home if it wasn’t making money and no one would want to buy it.” Through the week on the Northern Loop, David kept saying his catchphrase you cant be a little bit pregnant – you are either orcharding or you are not.”  From this point onwards it was clear that David and Sue were orchardists and they re-engaged on how they ran all facets of the business and over time have extensively upgraded their packhouse and orchard. David explained the importance of how they now monitor fruit size (using OrchardNet®), spray applications, pests and diseases (using RIMpro), weather, risks, and labour costs by block and activity. You just have to keep records to know how you are going, most of the time the figures back up what your gut tells you, but it makes things far clearer in terms of finance,” says David. Vernview’s thorough records and accounting gives them a strong grasp on the drivers of profitability. Vernview is continuing its transformation with a lot of grafting and over half of the orchard is now planted to M9 and M26 rootstocks on newer varieties in high density planting greater than 2,770 trees/hectare. They now see that around 59 per cent of their production comes off just 36 per cent of the planted area. Like all growers, they are still working just as hard, but now a lot smarter.

Battunga Orchards

Mark Trzaskoma from Battunga Orchards arrived as the manager to three year old trees, with relatively higher density plantings and dwarf rootstocks. “We had simple plans on pruning and were doing the same thing year after year waiting for huge tonnage to arrive, but it didnt happen, explains Mark. Much of the detail of the transformation

Mark Trzaskoma explains his approach to training trees in a 2D system at the Future Orchards walk, Battunga Orchards, Victoria.

of Battunga Orchards is well explained in a recent Future Orchards article published in the July 2015 edition of Australian Fruitgrower. Mark’s presentation titled “How long can we keep doing the same thing?” covered how in the beginning the orchard was faced with a raft of issues such as low tonnages, poor pack outs, limb rub, russet and blackspot. In just a few years, Battunga Orchards has been rapidly turned around to become one of the most progressive orchards in Australia. “We shifted our focus on addressing branches, making them more productive rather than cutting them out, because when we cut them out, all we end up with is more problem branches,” says Mark. “When we work with the branches we have got, we can put a nice canopy in place and get more fruit and better fruit.” At Battunga Orchards, turning around the poor performing blocks is only the start of their story. Mark described how in recent years he became drawn to the two dimensional system, which was inspired by a trip to the USA and Witchell’s property.

Trained branches at Battunga Orchards, Victoria.

I never stopped thinking about the 2D system in America,” says Mark. “We planted a trial block going into fifth leaf this year, we are comparing systems with different plant and wire spacing, where we run branches solely along the wire.” Their new plantings are now based on 2D systems, plus there is a 2D conversion where an older tall spindle block has been stubbed back to a pole and new growth fruiting wood is being trained onto wires. Like Vernview, detailed data collection using OrchardNet is vital in helping them make decisions. The details of both Mark Trzaskoma and David Fingers’ presentations are available from the APAL Future Orchards library.  Their stories are both excellent examples of the successes that can be had in turning bad situations around and by sticking with some key fundamental principles of fruit production.

AgFirst

AgFirsts Steve Spark and Ross Wilson outlined some fundamentals in their presentations.

“In orchards, a large number of canopy types and configurations are used worldwide and this flexibility makes the world of apple growing exciting,” says Ross. He explained that growers can be somewhat flexible and experimental, however, the fundamentals of any orchard system that must be followed are:

  • Use a dwarfing rootstock.
  • Canopy should have calm, low vigour, fruiting units.
  • Canopies should be narrow.
  • Minimise the structural wood in the canopy.
  • Minimum light interception should be 65 per cent.
  • The canopy must suit the way you work.

AgFirsts Steve Sparks discusses pruning and branch training.

Steve remarked on the changes he observed during the Southern Loop compared to 2011. It was very impressive what I saw here when travelling in March through southern Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia – there have been some huge gains made by the growers,”says Steve. Steve presented on the Southern Loop and spoke of the key messages they struggled to communicate, highlighting examples where gains can still be achieved with better execution. Steve firstly described how they used to see very poor young tree growth, which was generally due to lack of irrigation, nutrition, and weed control. There was also a real lack of TLC (tender loving care) and many young tree plants were not maintained well, meaning the trees took longer to get into production. It was often seen that growers were severely over using the 1/3 pruning rule, which results in the trees’ branches being pruned too hard. “Understand when to just leave the tree alone and get some fruit into it, says Steve. It’s more about understanding that if a branch is bigger than the one third rule then it could limit height. However, if the height of the tree is OK then you can be better off leaving it in, keeping that fruit and getting a better yield. Steve is very good at understanding the tree and noted some other improvements he saw in young trees, including better rootstock selection, improved pruning rules, good irrigation, and generally better execution of getting blocks to yield more quality fruit.

The next Future Orchards

The current Future Orchards project has been extended yet again as Horticulture Innovation Australia(HIA) makes final arrangements to finalise tenders for the technical portion of the project (currently with AgFirst) and the management portion (currently with APAL). It is generally expected that the tender process will be finalised in time for contracts to be signed and that the new Future Orchards project should commence from the beginning of October. The current project will now end on 30 September. It is expected that orchard walks will remain as the centrepiece of the next Future Orchards project. Other aspects of the project that are likely to continue will be the production of regular technical articles for Australian Fruitgrower as well as free access for growers wanting to use OrchardNet and an annual Orchard Business Analysis. The aim will be for each region to have one Focus Orchard where participants will follow and support a local orchardist who is improving their growing system. Plus two locally focused demonstrations for each region will seek to answer any specific production questions raised for the region. These regional activities will be driven by Front Line Advisors, backed by the region’s Community Orchard Group (COG) and the Future Orchards team. These orchard walks looked back at some of the challenges that our industry has faced and how, as demonstrated by our two guests, David Finger and Mark Trzaskoma, a strong business position can be regained. The Future Orchards team is committed to another five year Future Orchards project which means these types of stories will continue to be written.

Acknowledgements

APAL would like to thank David and Mark for their contribution, AgFirst’s Ross Wilson and Steve Spark, as well as the efforts of front line advisors, Stephen Tancred (Qld), Kevin Dodds (NSW), Sophie Folder (Tas), Susie Murphy-White (WA),  Paul James (SA), and Tony Filippi and Jabbar Khan (Vic). APAL would also like to acknowledge the ongoing promotional support for Future Orchards by out State Association partners: Growcom, NSW Farmers, Tasmanian Fruit Growers Association, Pomewest, SA Apple and Pear Growers Association, and Fruit Growers Victoria Ltd. Future Orchards is funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Ltd (HIA) using the apple and pear industry levy from growers and funds from the Australian Government.

 

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