By Sophie Clayton
Hail is the number one enemy of NSW apple growers The Westcastle Partnership, but with a long term plan and some recent help from the NSW State Government, they have now netted most of their orchard.
Devastating hailstorms have once again hit orchardists this year, with a number of pear growers in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley seriously affected by two massive hailstorms. But hail is not new to the industry and just about every grower has a horror hail story to tell.
Orchards in regions like Stanthorpe, Queensland, have responded to the hail threat (and for them the snow threat also) by netting their orchards. They now have as good as 100 per cent of their apple orchards netted. Yet other regions, and especially those with pear orchards, have not gone down this path…or not yet anyway.
There’s no doubt netting can be very effective – and your best insurance against hail – but establishment costs of netting and ongoing maintenance costs can make it difficult to do.
Taking a hard hit from hail
Brothers Peter and Tim West, and Tim’s wife Jayne, are the family members behind apple and cherry growing business The Westcastle Partnership in Orange, NSW. They experienced a shocker of a hail event in 2006 – the worst they had ever seen.
“Our roof fell in from the hail and water came down from the walls,” says Jayne. “It was devastating because not only did it take all that year’s fruit but it ruined the buds for the following year across both our apples and cherries.”
The damage to their fruit that year was complete and really knocked around the young trees too.
“It really stalled one of our newly planted orchards because of all the damage,” explains Peter. “But fortunately it missed our Nashdale orchard that year, but for some growers it affected all their orchards and some growers went out of business because of it.”
The Wests have around 50 hectares of apple and cherry trees across two orchards – one in Canobolas and one in neighbouring Nashdale. They produce between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes of apples every year including Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Pink Lady™, Granny Smith and Fujis.
“Mentally and physically it takes so long to get over a bad hail storm – you almost go into a bit of depression for a month and you don’t have much drive,” says Tim. “We know what the pear growers are going through.”
Another local grower, Guy Gaeta, organised a BBQ at Nashdale Hall and invited all the growers along as a show of support after their bad hailstorm.
“Everyone came together and was sharing the same story and you looked around and everyone was in the same boat – you think you’re alone but everyone’s in the same situation,” says Tim.
Peter adds that for their business – and probably all growers in the region – hail is the biggest business risk.
“Hail is our number one challenge, because it is so frequent and happens at just the wrong time,” says Peter. “It takes you years to recover.
“Once you get hit by hail, cash flow becomes a problem and you have to borrow more and it puts you behind. You might have wanted to buy machinery or whatever and you have to postpone all of that.”
Because of the potential damage hail can do and its capacity to wreck a whole business, Peter and Tim started down the track of netting their orchards.
The path to success is covered in…netting
To spread the cost of the netting, Peter and Tim have a plan to net a small proportion of their orchard every year – starting with the most productive and valuable blocks.
“Basically we’ve netted anything of value – our Galas and our Red Dels, because we still do OK with them, that’s how we have prioritised which orchards to net,” says Peter.
Close to half of the family’s orchards by area are netted now and much more than half according to production value. Across the entire Orange district more than 80 per cent of orchards are netted and most growers would have some of their orchard netted.
“We’ve just been doing it gradually because there’s always other maintenance and costs and you have to live within your means,” says Tim.
The Wests have mostly used drape netting to cover their trees, which is available from local grower and now netting supplier Michael Cunial at Drape Net. Other growers in the region have used either the full structural netting or Drape Net.
“Drape netting is more cost effective and in our orchards it has stood up better than the structured netting,” says Tim. “But we still think we need some sort of structure to keep the drape netting off the younger and smaller trees and those that are more densely planted.”
Some growers in the region are testing some different options to hold up the drape netting, which would be an added cost, but less expensive than full structural netting.
A couple of years ago another storm hit the region, but by this time a lot of the West’s orchard was protected by netting.
“The netting on one of our blocks saved us about 1,200 bins of apples,” says Peter.
It helps them all sleep a bit better at night.
By 2012, a number of Orange orchardists had already started rolling out netting, but another hail storm hit that season and, combined with the increasing pressure of fruit bats (or flying foxes) looking for new fruit supplies, orchardists sought extra help to expedite the netting process.
Guy Gaeta, who is also a representative of NSW Farmers, explains that he has observed an increase in the number of fruit bats frequenting the region and saw the difficulty local growers had with dealing with them. Netting is also effective at keeping bats off trees so they looked for opportunities to tackle the two problems together.
Through a coordinated effort, apple growers and NSW Farmers bandied together with staff from the NSW state government departments of Primary Industries, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Local Land Services, and the Office of Environment and Heritage, to look at ways to get government support for netting that would be a win-win for everyone – including the bats.
At the time there was already funding for growers in the Sydney Basin to put structural netting over their orchards as a way to protect fruit bats because one species, the Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), is a threatened species.
“We all got together with the NSW government departments as well as growers from Batlow to see if we could get the scheme extended to Batlow and Orange, and include drape netting,” explains Peter. “We had great support from our local member Andrew Gee who helped us get our idea up.”
Following a series of meetings and a carefully crafted letter to the then NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson MP, and NSW Minister for the Environment, Rob Stokes MP, that was prepared with the help of local communications consultant Bruce Reynolds – the informal consortium had success with getting the scheme for netting subsidies extended across NSW and available for throw-over or drape netting too. Their pitch focused around protecting the bats and the opportunity to help both environmentalists and farmers.
In August 2014, the NSW Ministers jointly announced that the NSW Flying-Fox Netting Subsidy Program had been extended. A subsidy of 50 per cent, up to a maximum of $20,000 per hectare, for orchard netting has since been made available.
Tim and Peter have made one claim to access the funding, which was successful, and found the process fairly straight forward.
“It was reasonably easy to make a claim,” says Peter. “We had to provide a bit of evidence of damage so we used a newspaper cutting from the district that showed the fruit bats and damage to orchards, plus you had to provide your financial information.
“Overall they were pretty helpful and I don’t think anyone was knocked back.”
The scheme is administered by the NSW Rural Assistance Authority with a total of $6 million available up until the 30 June 2016.
Michael Cunial estimates he has seen about a 30 per cent spike in orders from NSW growers for his drape netting since the subsidies were announced.
“Most of my regular customers bought extra net, plus we got quite a few new customers,” says Michael. “It was probably enough to sway people to get going with their netting.”
According to Michael, Drape Net is proving itself in some pretty extreme weather and hail events.
“There is less surface area to collect hail and the weight of the hail is spread across the net and the tree’s foliage, whereas in structured netting, the weight is all on the poles and netting so it may collapse when there’s a lot of weight on it,” says Michael.
He explains that before he puts up netting for a customer he checks out the block to make sure it has uniform tree rows to make setting up and putting on the net easy, and that any rogue limbs that may damage the netting are removed. As with Peter and Tim, Michael has observed that drape netting may stunt the growth and canopy development of younger trees. But over the last four years, he has been developing a new product that is a cross between a drape and structured net called a Drape Net Curtain Slider.
“We’re using ourselves as a guinea pig and testing it in one of our trellised blocks this year and we’ll refine it from there,” says Michael. “We think the new system will really work well with young trellised trees and the 2D system of planting.
“It’s going to be a semi-permanent system and we hope it will be commercially available next year.”
Netting for pears
As for netting pears, Michael says a couple of his customers have used Drape Net over pears, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used more broadly in pear orchards.
“It hasn’t been used that much in pears, but one of the pear growers here who is using it has said that apart from the protection it provides from hail, it also leaves the pears with a good skin finish,” says Michael.
“One possible problem is that overly vigorous pear trees might try to grow through the net, but in the Goulburn Valley the trees are mostly fairly mature and have settled down.
“Tree height and width may also be a limiting factor in pears, because if the trees are too big the machine wouldn’t be able to roll out the net.”
Growers interested in trying out Drape Net can contact Michael who will supply new customers with a couple of rolls to test in their own orchard.