Masons map a path from roots to quality fruitIndustry Best Practice
The Mason family’s multi-generational dedication to cultivating exceptional fruit is evident in every row of trees on their 21.9-hectare orchard in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills. Their nursery and young tree development, minimising of biennial bearing, focused worker training, crop load management and quality combine to deliver an average yield of 75 tonne/ha and average Class 1 packouts of 80 per cent.
Noel Mason plays an integral role in overseeing the family’s AG & HC Mason orchard operations at Forest Range. Noel’s knowledge, experience and vision for the future has been shaped by decades of family dedication.
“We are the sixth generation growing fruit in Forest Range and the third generation on this property. Being a family operation, we all work together for the best interests of the business,” he said.
Currently, the Mason family members involved in the organisation are Noel’s father Ashley and his cousins, Stephen and Graham.
AG & HC Mason grows a diverse range of apple varieties, including Cripps Pink and Rosy Glow (sold domestically as Pink Lady), Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, Scilate (Envy™), ANABP-01 (Bravo®), Scifresh (Jazz™), PremA96 (Rockit™) and R201 (Kissabel®), which are all produced on super spindle and V systems. Noel, who plays a role in the variety selection process said the quality of the team behind a managed variety is as important as the apple itself.
“We carefully selected apple varieties that we believed would resonate with consumers. The process of choosing a specific apple variety extends far beyond taste alone. It’s a multifaceted consideration that encompasses several critical elements. Bravo, for instance, brings a unique appeal. We consider not only the apple but also factors like management, the team responsible for packing and marketing, effective communication, and the overall structure of the apple brand and program.”
AG & HC Mason supplies fruit to several packhouses, each with varying size profiles and standards, offering flexibility to cater to different market preferences.
“We are a grower-only enterprise that remains dedicated to delivering quality apples while trying to combat the challenges of a high-cost production environment and constantly evolving market conditions,” Noel said.
While the Masons have participated in export programs, they remain committed to exploring more marketing options to diversify within the Australian market.
If you can’t buy it, grow it
Noel said establishing a successful orchard often hinges on the initial development stages in a nursery. Nurturing nursery trees and young tree management is a key part of the AG & HC Mason operation.
“Trees typically spend two seasons in our nursery, either originating from a bench graft or a summer bud,” Noel said. “Bench grafts aim for a 10mm diameter at the heading cut, executed before the second growing season. The height of the heading cut is contingent on the desired placement of the first limbs – 900mm for a super spindle system or 600mm for a V system. Trees from summer buds undergo only one season of growth before harvesting. Giving due consideration to graft union height is crucial and providing adequate support through staking is essential for optimal outcomes. Maximising nutritional and trace element reserves in the tree before excavation proves beneficial in its first year of planting.”
Noel said developing young orchards was an art in itself and the key was in pre-plant preparation and getting everything right before the trees go in.
“Ripping and tillage, along with soil amendments based on soil tests – think lime, gypsum, NPK and the like,” he said. “Soil fumigation is a necessity for apple replanting. I recommend chloropicrin and Telone™, preferably under plastic. Even in non-replant situations, some form of fumigation remains beneficial. Remember, the tree is the final element to be introduced. Prioritise the installation of all infrastructure, including trellis poles and irrigation.”
According to Noel, the first two years of a tree’s growth are critical in determining its future success.
“Do everything you can for growth,” he said. “This includes early flower removal – preferably done by hand – consistent irrigation with fertigation, effective pest and disease control, regular foliar nutrition, and the application of PGRs, especially during the initial year post-planting. A considerable portion of the root system often remains in the nursery paddock, necessitating nutritional support for the root-to-top ratio until the root system catches up.”
When it comes to considering a change of variety on established blocks, Noel said grafting must be considered.
“If we are content with the spacing, rootstock and trellis infrastructure, we’ve employed the step graft method in a couple of blocks. It’s our preference, as we are hesitant to cut a tree down without nurse limbs.”
Additionally, there is the intriguing prospect of adjusting leaders per hectare or contemplating a system change.
“I’ve always had an interest in grafting and propagating; there is good job satisfaction when it comes together. Benefits include having some control of delivery date, budwood selection, tree size and structure to suit your desired system.”
“Bud and fruit counts are used as a guide for both pruning and thinning according to branch diameter. There are no medals for overcropping..”
Choreographing an efficient orchard
At AG & HC Mason, selecting the appropriate orchard system is crucial, impacting not just fruit quality but also labour efficiency.
“When deciding on a system for a new block, several factors come into play,” Noel explained. “We consider the characteristics of the variety, such as its growth habit and the lineal metres of fruiting wood per hectare. We evaluate long-term labour efficiency, yield potential and the system’s ability to consistently deliver quality and packout and we also assess the initial set-up costs against the anticipated returns. Taking all these factors into account, a V system, whether vertical or horizontal wood, would be my typical recommendation.”
The Masons have made a significant investment in netting over the last seven years, with 70 per cent of the orchard currently covered and plans for further expansion.
“We began installing permanent netting over our apple orchards in 2016. With significant bird pressure, crop loss is unsustainable without some kind of netting. After the rice hailstorms of October 2017, we pushed the netting program forward with a revised mesh size. Netting offers many benefits; however, fruit set under net has proved challenging.”
Noel highlighted the importance of year-to-year consistency. “Any effort to uniform any biennial tendencies is worthwhile. Bud and fruit counts are used as a guide for both pruning and thinning according to branch diameter. There are no medals for overcropping.”
Grafting dollars and sense
The Mason family maintains a strong focus on yield, recognising its role in driving down production costs per kilo.
“Rosy Glow is by far the best yielding variety we grow. However, Gala often pack out at a higher percentage. Over the last 10 years, our yield has increased by about 15 per cent. The key factors for this are taller trees and increased canopy size, better tree support and better nutrition resulting in better year-to-year consistent crops.
“In terms of the target yield/ha that we are aiming for when counting flowers or buds, for a mature block of Rosy Glow at 3760 trees/ha the aim would be for 120 tonne/ha and 90 tonne/ha for a Gala block. Our average Class 1 packout percentage is in the 75–80 per cent zone, although we are working towards the 80–90 per cent bracket. Class 1 packout has decreased in the last 10 years by 5–10 per cent. One of the main defects shown in our packout reports is minor bruising. I think the key factors for this are increasingly higher and unsustainable packing standards combined with use of technology and defect sorters in packhouses where there is no compromise on very minor blemishes.”
Balancing the need for orchard redevelopment with profitability is a formidable challenge, especially when there are three family groups involved in the business.
“We can’t afford time out of production; we need to get blocks back in production as soon as possible,” Noel explained. “In the past, we had the policy to line out some rootstock in a nursery every year, then make a decision on variety and where they will be planted down the track. This approach definitely drove our orchard redevelopment and planting densities.”
But as they stand now, the Mason family recognise the need for grafting in the future, taking into account their existing rootstocks, infrastructure and spacing.
“We are probably at a point now where, for any future development, grafting will be the best option.”
A recent shift in the Mason family’s orchard management has been the introduction of cost calculations per block. Noel acknowledged the impact of this change and its implications for the future.
“I guess we have always had some idea of costs and yields, particularly averages. But to see it on paper, block by block, has really highlighted some areas for improvement and also what can be achieved.
“Labour inputs are the big one for us to watch. Other inputs like sprays and fertiliser are relatively low in terms of cost per kilogram.”
In their pursuit of increased labour efficiency, the Mason family have adapted their canopy design to align with platform usage.
“Nearly all orchard tasks are performed from platforms; therefore, our canopy has been adapted over time to be platform friendly.”
The Masons family’s collaborative approach with their casual workers has been pivotal to achieving consistent fruit quality.
“Having had a fair percentage of the same people for numerous seasons, you build up strong relationships. Retaining casual work staff with some passion for their job has been good as they begin to understand the full picture and how it all works.”
In an era where technology is shaping agriculture, the Mason family maintain a somewhat traditional approach to documenting their operations.
“Unfortunately, we are not real tech-savvy, we currently still use paper and Excel spreadsheets.”
Against the backdrop of changing paradigms, the Mason family continue to adapt, building on their rich fruit-growing heritage with innovative strategies and close attention to detail. They remain committed to producing fine fruit – a testament to generations that have come before them and the generations that will come after them.
This article was first published in the Summer 2023/4 edition of AFG.