The first block of trees Huon Valley fifth-generation apple grower Scott Stevenson pushed out after taking over the family orchard business last July was the same block his father Adrian first planted when he in his own turn began running the business 38 years earlier.
Father and son laugh about this. Scott is quick to explain it wasn’t a wilful filial revolt against his dad’s old-fashioned notions, just a mark of how much the industry had changed over the years.
While Red Delicious were very popular in the 1980s, the variety has fallen from consumer favour and – according to the latest National Apple and Pear Crop Estimate released
earlier this year – now accounts for barely five per cent of national production.
The bare block will be replanted to one of the new breed of managed varieties, the New Zealand-bred early season variety PremA17 (marketed as Smitten™ and managed in Australia by Montague), as Scott works to maximise returns per bin from the small eight-hectare orchard at the head of a picturesque valley at Mountain River in Tasmania’s premium Huon Valley growing region.
“The Red Delicious returns just weren’t there,” Scott said. “Something had to give to get the new varieties in.”
Managed varieties the way forward
Scott sees the managed varieties, with their premium and consistent quality, and controlled volumes, backed by substantial brand marketing, as the way forward and has been experimenting with Smitten’s sister variety Scilate (marketed as Envy™ and also managed by Montague) on different orchard systems to see what performs best on the site.
The results are promising.
“We produce around 1100 bins, with 1.5 hectares of the trees still non-bearing,” he said. “Based on what we have seen from Envy so far we would only have to grow 300 bins to get the same return.”
Scott and Adrian have replanted five blocks in the past four years, all to Scilate, and the best results have come from the most recently planted block, which was fumigated first and planted at high density to Scilate trees grown on the orchard and cut back to 600 millimetres in their first year on the block.
The block was fumigated first with Chloropicrin at a cost of approximately $1.85 per metre prior to planting to control apple replant disease and Scott said the increased vigour and uniform tree sizing had repaid the investment already.
“It is our worst soil but in the first 12 months it is already producing the best trees we have,” he said.
Scott decided to try fumigation after seeing other local growers’ results from fumigated land.
“When we planted the first three Envy blocks I didn’t think there was much benefit in fumigating prior to planting, but since seeing the results on the latest block I can see the point.
“The Fujis were hit with a lot of replant disorder. They were two-year-old trees out of the nursery and we tried to get fruit on them in the first year. They were replanted and then had to grow roots and apples. That shut the tree down and we learnt the hard way.
“The latest block we cut back at 600mm high on planting out and concentrated on growing the roots and getting the tree established before we stressed about fruit.”
The new block is planted at 3700 trees per hectare – a far cry from the 400 Jonathan trees/ha pushed out to make way for the new planting – at 4m-by-0.7m tree spacing and is a bi-axe on a V-trellis system. It was this system Scott said had produced the best results on the site and he would stick with.
Getting to that system has involved some systematic trials.
The first block of Scilate was grafted onto Jonagold trees on a MM.106 rootstock and in its fourth leaf this year produced 55t/ha with a 96 per cent Class 1 packout on the first colour pick and 87 per cent Class 1 packout on the second pick.
Initially established as a traditional vase shape, it is being retrospectively trained back to a V-trellis to support crop load and better structure for light penetration and reduce limb rub.
“We had to cut the trees back to support the traditional vase shape,” Scott said. “We could have gained a year and been up around 80t/ha if we had put them on a trellis at the start.”
The second and third blocks were planted to high-density upright systems at 5m-by-1.5 and 4m-by-1.5m respectively. Learnings from using this method have seen Scott discontinue the use of high-density upright systems and utilise V-trellis systems to maximise the tonnage per hectare.
Do-it-yourself approach cuts costs
Keeping costs down is a key focus for a small orchard, with Scott and Adrian having grown their own trees for the past 10 years. Managed variety agreements mean some trees will still need to be bought in.
Young trees are grown for two years in the nursery. On planting out they are cut back to 600mm, the two leaders are isolated and the tree is left to grow its ‘engine’ for a year before Scott looks for a first crop in the third leaf once the trees are to height.
In recent years Scott has also set up a stool bed and begun propagating his own MM.102 rootstocks, chosen as an all-round rootstock that is suitable for most varieties.
“We are trying to do as much as we can ourselves,” he said. “For a small business it is a lot harder to pay $10-$15/tree when planting a high-density system. If we do it ourselves it is just the cost of our labour.”
Not all blocks are new. The orchard still has blocks of 130-year-old Golden Delicious and Granny Smith planted by Scott’s great-great-grandfather, who established the orchard in the 1860s.
The Granny Smith are still yielding 75t/ha and a Golden Delicious block grafted onto trees that were originally planted to produce Pink Lady® apples in the late 1990s this year yielded a record 100t/ha.
“The Goldies have less labour costs as you don’t have to colour pick or use Extenday,” Scott said. “They are just not picker-friendly; they are the most sensitive apple we grow.”
Lower costs, high yields and good quality mean the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious are still paying their way. Scott keeps detailed records of the costs and yields and decisions are based on returns per bin.
“We have a small area of orchard so we need to make sacrifices and look at the costs and what is making the most.
If it’s not making a profit it’s going,” Scott said. “We have to keep improving; that’s what inspires us to continue. That’s why we still have 130-year-old trees here. They’re outperforming the others.”
As well as Envy and Smitten, Scott plans over the next few years to add Ambrosia™ to the mix.
“Hopefully the new club varieties are here for long enough to allow us to replant the older trees,” Scott said. “The club varieties deliver a consistently higher return, whereas the older varieties fluctuate.”
Despite the orchard’s southerly location, its protected position means temperatures have hit 45°C in summer and can fall as low as -3°C in winter. Wind, hail, frost and snow are not uncommon. None of the blocks are netted as yet but future blocks may be.
While Extenday has been used in the orchard for more than 15 years, Scott has also trialled foil under trees to improve the fruit colour and Class 1 packout. This year he trialled a new Extenday product with a white-and-silver reflective mix which he said delivered better colour and was easier to lay and pick up.
“We have to try to get as much Class 1 fruit as possible. We don’t have our own coolstores so we have to make sure that what goes out is the best quality and we don’t pay storage costs on second-grade fruit.”
Being a small orchard, he said using labour as effectively as possible was also important and had contributed to the decision to plant the early-season PremA17.
“One of the reasons for going down the Smitten path is we don’t have cherries so we are trying to make the season longer,” he said. “Once we get the labour team in we need to give them continuous work. If there is a week’s gap they will go somewhere else.
“We would pick Smitten first and then move to Gala, Fiero Fuji, Golden Delicious, the remaining Jonagold, Cox Orange Pippin, Ambrosia, Red Delicious, Brazil Fuji, Granny Smith and Envy.”
Fruit is sent to Hansen Orchards for packing and Scott said Howard Hansen and Ryan Hankin, in addition to other local growers, had been an invaluable source of support and advice.
The sixth generation
Making a living from a small orchard is a challenge but Scott is unperturbed that he is flying in the face of the prevailing view that you have to get bigger to stay in business.
With better varieties, high densities and yields and attention to detail to minimise costs and maximise Class 1 packouts, he is optimistic there will be an apple-growing future for the sixth generation of Stevensons: his sons Jack, now 7, and Max, 4.
“It is an ever-changing industry with new opportunities for varieties and improvements to growing practices every year,” he said.
“The possibility of handing over a successful business to the next generation is exciting.”