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New Zealand apple and pear growers adapting to new horizons

Technology & Data

“Adapting to New Horizons” – exploring how growers and exporters can modify and adapt in order to remain globally competitive – was the theme for the New Zealand Apple and Pear Conference 2022, which was held in Nelson from 24–26 August 2022.

Walt Duflock, Vice President of Innovation at Western Growers, United States, kicked off proceedings sharing his experiences of working in horticulture and Silicon Valley with startups and investors. Walt said that automation is the only realistic, scalable solution to labour stresses. He reported a trend in increases in financing of agtech startups in artificial intelligence (AI) and software validation, multiple crop solutions (e.g. machines that can weed, thin, harvest assist across a range of crop types), pollination technologies, and novel crop inputs and crop protection options. Interestingly, he noted that only 2.5 per cent of investment was in robotics in the first quarter of 2022. Many efficiency gains have already been made using improved genetics, trellis and orchard architecture (e.g. 2D systems), and machinery. Examples he gave of companies working in the agriculture/horticulture space included Burro (collaborative robots), TortugaAgtech (robots), Carbon Robotics (weeding machine), Raven Industries (autonomous and precision farming) and Advanced Farm (robotics and automation).

Peter McHannigan, Innovation Lead – Orchard Technology at Zespri kiwifruit outlined the Global Tech Scan that Zespri had recently undertaken with Ernst & Young, looking to answer questions such as:

  • Why orchard technology? Commercial drivers, customer and supply chain demands, grower profiles
  • Scope: on-orchard, traditional, significant and persistent challenges, and horizons for now (1–2 years), the next 3–5 years and beyond >5 years
  • What are the common challenges growers are trying to solve? Labour, sustainability, disease and pest surveillance and management, and nutrient and water management.

The technology categories the scan looked at included robotics, AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and precision ag. Peter recommended that if someone is looking for tech they should consider:

  • what the problem is
  • the maturity and cost of the technology
  • the bigger picture – how does the tech fit into your operation?

The conference also featured a virtual presentation from Markus Bradlwarter from the Variety Innovation Consortium South Tyrol (SK), Italy, about their ongoing search for new and interesting apple varieties being developed in the 80+ breeding programs around the world. The apple industry in South Tyrol consists of around 7,000 farms producing around 1M t/ha, approximately half of the Italian apple production and 10 per cent of the European production. Around 90 per cent of marketing is done through cooperatives. Markus noted that colour development can be challenging for growers in the region. Variety testing has three stages. The first is pomological testing done by Laimburg Research Centre. Those varieties that make it to the second stage are evaluated by SK for fitness in production, storage, and consumer testing. The final stage is the pre-commercialisation stage, also conducted by SK, during which a larger number of trees of the test varieties are evaluated by growing trees in different locations.

Key properties of apple varieties that SK are seeking include regular yield and high packout, resistance to pests and diseases, taste, pulp texture and storability. In future, they are also seeking varieties with bright pink, red or orange skin, small snack sizes, red flesh, extra sweet, allergy sensitive and diabetic-safe characteristics.

Many of the conference presentations are available to download on the New Zealand Apples and Pears website.

platform and tower sprayer

Agtech on display at the “Agritech in the Orchards” event: platform in foreground and tower sprayer in background

The Conference was preceded by an “Agritech in the Orchards” event, which focused on accelerating both the development and adoption of agtech within New Zealand’s apple and pear industries. This began with indoor panel discussions about the digital future for sustainability and doing more with less. Key take home points included:

  • Out-of-harvest technologies are more popular, including weeding, thinning and planting technologies, e.g. Carbon Robotics laser weeder, platforms help with recruitment, the autonomous Burro runs the harvested crop back to the truck or shed, trellis infrastructure.
  • Some things need to change in order to make technology more accessible and usable including “tasking” – collecting and interpreting data for robots to do a task, establishing growing systems in preparation for automation, and updating regulatory changes to accommodate technology, e.g. for chemical spraying, autonomous orchards.
  • Technology needs to perform at an economic level that is less expensive than people.
A mini irrigator is placed around replacement trees and connected to the irrigation system to ensure that the new trees get enough water and catch up to the other trees in the orchard.

The H2Ortigator is placed around replacement trees and connected to the irrigation system to ensure that the new trees get enough water and catch up to the other trees in the orchard.

The group then visited Vailima Orchard for demonstrations by agtech companies including:

  • Peek Robotics – land-based rover prototype, Grover
  • Onside – digital toolkit for farmers, growers and contractors
  • CropX – data-driven, digital decision and planning tools to manage the environment
  • Agri-automation – making tractors more efficient and productive through automation
  • Landkind – helping farms and agribusinesses to visualise, manage and optimise land
  • H2Ortigator – irrigation system for replacement trees and vines in commercial orchards and vineyards
  • Aerobotics – generating insights for precision growing and crop insurance
  • Smart Machine/Oxin – reimagining tractors using autonomous multifunctional capabilities, sensors and data capture to support better decisions in the orchards
  • PFR – real-time pest-trapping data, managing key pests with higher precision
  • MaaraTech – showcasing virtual reality (VR) pruning, training reimagined.


agtech technology and robotics varieties and rootstock

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