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Make no mistake, Trent turns adversity to advantage

Industry Best Practice

Grower of the Year is awarded to an individual who is outstanding across all aspects of production, including growing, environmental management, staff management and product quality.

The 2022 Grower of the Year and Stanthorpe orchardist Trent Vedelago keeps a sharp focus on quality and consistency, pays attention to detail and – as much as he is able – ‘makes no mistakes!’

“It’s a rule with us,” Trent laughs, when APAL catches up with him at the end of harvest. “We talk about it all the time. It’s the mistakes that cost you money.”

‘Us’ is Trent, his sister Tamra and his father David – who, together, manage the 145 hectares of orchards – and Trent’s uncle Robert, who runs the packing shed at Fonlea Orchards in Queensland’s Granite Belt region.

Fonlea grows predominantly open varieties – Granny Smith, Gala, Cripps Pink (“… it colours up very well here in Stanthorpe …”), Rosy Glow and Red Delicious – as well as newer managed varieties Scilate (marketed as Envy™), Nicoter (as Kanzi®) and the Italian-bred CIVG198 (as Modi™).

It is the consistency of the high yields and quality achieved under Trent’s guidance as operations manager, the innovation and the enormous resilience that brought the orchard through the crippling 2019–20 drought that made Trent the standout choice against very strong competition for the 2022 Grower of the Year award.

Quality focus

In the orchard, Trent said the aim was “to grow a consistent crop that we can sell, with good packouts”. But he stresses that good returns are also essential. “If it is not making you money, why are you growing it?”

Consistent quality is achieved through close attention to watering, nutrition and use of PGRs for thinning and to both control vigour and manage harvest timing for better quality fruit.

Fonlea supplies supermarket chains directly and crop targets are set with these customers in mind.

Fruit size is targeted at a 70 or 76 count (160–170g) and bud counts used to set up a pruning plan. “But if we’d pruned hard after the drought, we’d have had no crop,” Trent said. “The buds looked weak.”

Yield depends on the season, with the priority to hit fruit size targets.

“Tonnage and packout, that’s what drives profit,” Trent said. “If the dams are full we might try and push that tonnage up. But if you have no water, you want that tonnage down and to know you are still going to grow the fruit in that size range because that’s what’s going to sell.

“There’s no point setting the tree up for, let’s say, 80t/ha, especially on a Gala, and then running short of water and you grow all prepack sizes and don’t make any money.”

Prior to the drought, Trent said they were planting around 10,000 to 15,000 new trees a year – “that got blown out of the water …” – but the focus now is on getting the existing blocks back into full production.

The planting systems on the third-generation orchard family farm have evolved continuously and now range from original Granny Smith plantings at 269/ha to new high-density two-dimensional blocks at up to 4000/ha.

“If we are planting a new orchard, we’re trying to do 3.6m by 0.8m or 0.9m depending on where we are and try to do a single wire,” Trent said. “But if we’re replanting in an old block, where we’ve already got hail netting, it’s determined by the spaces of the rows that are already there.

“If they are 5m rows, we will try and put in a V-trellis because that suits and we’ll get more productivity out of that. If it is a 6m row, where there were two rows, we’ll try and plant three back in there on a single wire again.”

Trent said the preferred rootstock for new plantings was the Geneva CG202 to improve pest and disease resistance and provide suitable vigour for Granite Belt conditions.

All blocks are automatic drip irrigation, which also delivers fertigation, and all blocks are permanently netted.

“Stanthorpe was one of the first places in Australia to erect netting in 1985,” Trent said. “The Granite Belt is very prone to hail, we get on average nine hailstorms a year.”

Plant growth regulators play a key role in quality management both at the start and end of season. Trent said Regalis® had been the making of the Cripps Pink variety in Stanthorpe.

“We used to have 1–1.5m shoots and we’d pick very poor-colour and poor-quality apples,” he said. “Controlling the shoots means the tree is putting more effort into growing the apple and not the tree. You’re getting more energy into the apple, better colour and you put tonnage on the tree as well.

“With Gala, it’s about managing harvest. Harvista™ is new, but if ReTain® hadn’t been here for the last 15–20 years giving you time to get around the whole orchard we’d be growing half the Galas we do. In this district you can go from looking at a piece of fruit that’s not too bad, half-coloured, green background to, within a week, being over-mature and on the ground.”

Innovation and labour

Fonlea packs its own fruit, including pre-packs, and upgraded the Compac grader just prior to the drought to install a near infrared (NiR) internal defects scanning and a new defect sorter, which Trent said had effectively eliminated rejections for major defects.

Around 16 staff are employed in the packing shed and 40 in the orchards at harvest and prior to this year Trent said they had been able to source workers locally. The business currently has Pacific Islands workers under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme via a contractor and is working towards getting approved as an approved employer in its own right.

Trent said cherry pickers rather than platforms were the common method for picking the upper canopy, largely due to the challenges of the hilly, rocky terrain, where few blocks are square and most are either contoured around rock or have a rock in the middle.

“It’s called the Granite Belt for a reason, there’s a lot of friggin’ rock!”

“We’ve been big into the cherry pickers for a long, long time,” Trent said. “I get a lot of good workers that want to use the machines and can pick a lot from them as well and make very, very good money. Some of the guys are really good and we try and look after them that way.

“I’m not ruling out platforms, we just haven’t seen the necessity yet. They’re developing robotic picking now. I’m probably more inclined to hang off and wait for that. It all comes back to what they can produce them for. If they are slow, but can be produced cheaply, you’d just buy them, but if they are expensive, they need to be efficient.”

Tough decisions

No amount of planning can prepare you for the sort of drought that hit Stanthorpe in 2018–19. In hilly country with no big rivers, Stanthorpe growers rely on catching what rain falls and flows into dams to meet the estimated 5ML/ha/year irrigation needed to produce a crop. The predominant shallow, sandy loam soils have such poor water-holding capacity Trent said locals liken farming them to “like growing hydroponics”.

The average rainfall is around 880mm, but in 2019 it stopped raining. For months. Like other growers in the region, Fonlea was suddenly faced with the prospect of losing trees and livelihood, with tough decisions suddenly needed to allocate scarce water resources.

“That very bad year we had 250mm, and 150mm fell in one day, the rest of the year we had absolutely nothing,” Trent said. “It wasn’t so much that it didn’t rain, but that it was so bloody hot.”

Fonlea began by buying water from any neighbour willing to sell, sometimes pumping as far as 10 kilometres through a network of small private pipes installed to link dams on far flung properties.

“If you could take an aerial view of Stanthorpe with all those pipelines, it’d look pretty ridiculous,” Trent said. “When you go to put another pipeline in, especially along the road, you’ve got to really sit back and think, has your neighbour put one there already.”

When local dams dried up, they carted, in the first season from Dalveen, 10km away, at a cost of $7,000/ML. In the second season from west of Warwick, a 40-minute drive away.

“That was costing $17,000/ML and we were carting a megalitre a day in the peak of it,” Trent said. “At the start you think, this can’t last, we’ll just do this to get us through the season, we’re that close to picking, we’ll just get the crop off.

“You get to the next year and think, let’s just get ourselves started. It can’t last. It’s got to rain. Then you just do it to keep the trees alive. Because how much money do you lose if you lose your entire orchard as opposed to carting water?”

As a dry winter gave way to a hot summer in 2019 and still no rain, the focus at Fonlea turned to difficult decisions of where to allocate scarce water resources.

“A lot of our discussion revolved around our older trees. Why have we got them? What are we doing with them? These older varieties, what are we keeping them for?

“If it was a normal year, with plenty of rain, you wouldn’t even be thinking these thoughts but because you’re in the middle of a drought and you’re really struggling for water, you’re cutting loose ends and starting from the bottom rung and working up.”

In the second summer of the drought, the Vedelagos bought a nearby property with combined storage of 650ML in two dams, about half full, adding to pre-drought capacity of 990ML. The property also came with 65ha of additional orchard, some of which was subsequently pushed out.

Blocks identified as inefficient or unproductive were initially not pruned.

“At the next stage we pruned as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible,” Trent said. “Not too detailed, chunk pruning, to spend as little money as possible in case we did push them out. Some of the Gala was pushed out. The young ones you knew you were going to keep were the ones you’d look after and prune correctly.”

Trent said the huge financial outlay and continuous crisis management had been both incredibly stressful and mentally exhausting.

“It does your head in,” Trent said. “You get up in the morning with an idea of what you are going to do and by lunchtime you’ve changed your mind four different ways. And these choices are as simple as whether you water for half an hour opposed to 45 minutes. You think I’ve only got so much water, what do I do with it? You just can’t think straight and it is not a good place to be in mentally.”

Recovery phase

This season has been the first year back in full production since the drought. Despite the rain last year, trees still underperformed, but Trent feels the months of outlaying for and trucking in water, and the focus on hard pruning and crop load management is paying off in a quicker bounce back.

For the first season in a while he is looking forward to concentrating on restoring tonnage harvested and returns.

“It’s early days, but I think we will come out of it a season earlier than if we hadn’t carted the water,” he said.

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