Simplicity is not the first word that springs to mind when considering the complexity of running five orchards across two states, a large packhouse and a fledgling cider operation.
But at Nightingale Brothers, based in Victoria’s north east, continually striving for a way of delivering better quality more efficiently and smoothly is a goal that underpins daily decision-making.
“A simple, straightforward system, that is what we are aiming for,” said Bruce Nightingale who, with son Cade, manages the family’s Buckland Valley orchard beneath Mount Buffalo.
In the Buckland Valley that aim has culminated, for now at least, in a high density, near two-dimensional, multi leader system, spaced at 3.5m x 0.8m, with a top wire at 3.8m. The four-year-old Gala trees, grafted onto M9 rootstock, are expected to produce 70t/ha of high-quality fruit.
Bruce’s brother, and Nightingale Bros Orchard Manager, Don Nightingale brought the multi-leader concept back from a visit to New Zealand. He said it had proven easier to access and manage, while still delivering the tonnage of the slender spindle system that had served them well until then. It is now being used across all orchards.
“Changing over a block can be $100k/ha and there are so many systems,” he said. “We are trying to be more efficient. This is the one we are practising at the moment and using for recent plantings, but we are continually evolving.”
The immaculate rows of even canopied, close pruned trees at Buckland Valley, hand -thinned back to singles – “we want 100 per tree” – present the very image of efficiency.
Don said the closer spacing of the multi leaders had filled in the canopy and allowed for shorter and finer lateral wood – roughly secateurs-length and pencil thickness – making for ease of pruning, and access along rows. Improved light penetration was also delivering better and more uniform colour.
“Everything we do is around quality,” he said. “We don’t skimp with fertiliser or tree maintenance. Everything is done to the best of our ability and that should give us good quality. The multi leader system helps us with quality because we can take a large pick very quickly.
“We can get the Rosy Glow (marketed as Pink Lady®) in two picks. We ended up with a very good first pick of 80 per cent this year and came straight back for the second pick.”
“We like fine wood and we like a two-dimensional structure – you get good light penetration and good chemical penetration. It is a very easy tree to instruct people how to maintain, it is easy to pick and the tonnage is still there. It is all designed about simplicity and ease.”
Bruce said they had tried a closer 3m x 0.8m planting, also of Gala, but although it was likely to yield well, they had found it a bit tight to manage.
“Others guys have gone closer, but that’s as game as we’ve gone,” he said. “The narrow lane is a bit too narrow, we have to get ladders and pickers around the bins. It’s a bit tight and we don’t think we will do that again, but if robotic picking is considered, trees with that spacing would be good for robotic picking. That would be the robotic one!”.
CA Storage to Cider
Robots may yet be a little way off, but the Nightingale business has innovated steadily over the 70 years since Keith Nightingale, father to Bruce, Don, Ross – who manages the packhouse at Wandiligong – and Anne, bought his first orchard in the area.
Keith, awarded the title of Industry Legend (now Lifetime Achievement Award) in 2013 for his contribution to the apple industry, moved to Wandiligong with wife Marianne in 1954 and gradually added a second orchard at Wandiligong, and orchards in nearby Stanley, the Buckland Valley and Batlow, in NSW.
Initially growing Red Delicious, Jonathan and Granny Smith apples, Keith began growing chestnuts and the more hail-prone Stanley orchard is now entirely planted to chestnuts. The business now has 150ha under apples.
Now 89, Keith still takes an active interest in the business, which in addition to Keith and Marianne’s four children, now includes three of their grandchildren: Cade, and his cousins, Ross’s sons Brad, who works with him in the packhouse, and Steve who manages a Wandiligong orchard.
The Nightingales were one of the first in the country to install a controlled atmosphere (CA) coolroom at Wandiligong in 1968, where cold storage capacity now sits at 15,000 bins.
A recently-installed European MAF RODA pre-sizer at Wandiligong has helped streamline the packing process, reduce labour requirements and lift the output to 2000 boxes a day.
Packing is carried out year-round and fruit sent to markets in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, major retailers and local independent retailers.
Increased packhouse efficiency is essential to manage increased productivity from high density plantings and new varieties.
“Twenty years ago, we were planting 700 trees per hectare at 5m x 3m spacing and getting 40 tonnes/ha,” Don said. “Now we have blocks of 3000 trees/ha, with 6000 heads/ha and our very best blocks are getting 80-90t/ha.
“We have trees in the ground for possibly 20,000 bins a year production, but we are still two or three years away from that. We used to aim for 12,000 bins, but we are running out of bins every year.”
Keith and his sons worked with well-known consultant (and fellow Lifetime Achievement Award recipient) Colin Little to ensure fruit is picked at the optimum point for quality. Maturity testing is carried out at harvest based on parameters supplied by Ross.
All fruit is picked from ladders by a team of 15-20 pickers who return annually.
“We have a contractor that has supplied us with excellent labour for many years,” Bruce said. “They know what we are looking for and we appreciate their help in finding it.”
An Alpine Cider label launched two to three years ago and made under contract in Melbourne from predominantly Rosy Glow fruit is doing well and also provides a good alternative for fruit that might not have the colour to meet Class 1 grade.
“If it is less than best grade, the fruit goes to cider,” Don said. “Because our cider is getting going, it’s not so critical to have every apple a winner, because if it is not 100pc colour there is an option.”
Protecting the crop
A key part of delivering quality and maintaining high packouts is protecting fruit on the tree.
All blocks are netted to protect against hail, with a mix of permanent and Drape Net, and have drippers for irrigation and fertigation.
“Permanent netting is the ultimate, but there is the cost,” Don said. “Drape Net is something we can do ourselves. The use of Drape Net has helped with quality. I think Extenday is going to be important to get improved colour.
“I saw some pull-over netting in New Zealand and I am keen to look at that a bit more closely also.”
Netting also provided some protection against flying foxes that arrived at harvest last year and are considered likely to be an ongoing issue.
“The nets help, but we like to take the nets off a week or 10 days before harvest to let mother nature have a look at the fruit and add a bit of colour,” Bruce said.
The Nightingales were among the first to introduce overhead sprinklers for frost protection after seeing them in use during a visit to the US and the Buckland Valley orchard has frost sensors, and sprinklers on every third row.
Last year the sprinklers were used three times, but they know from experience the cost of not having protection at hand. Frosts have caused crop losses in the past.
“Spring frosts are a major problem in the valley, and we have overhead water to protect the crops,” Bruce said.
Integrated Pest and Disease Management (IPDM) has been part of the orchard management for decades and the effort is rewarded by minimal pest issues and lower chemical use.
An alternating weekly mowing of every second row ensures there is always grass for beneficial insects.
“It is a very clean orchard,” Bruce said. “Cade has been on the orchard for 14 years and he has never sprayed a miticide.
“We get occasional aphids on young shoots, but they don’t stay. We have lots of black wasps and paper wasps that eat the aphids.
“We use a little carbyl to thin, but otherwise we try not to use anything that will harm beneficials. The chemical bills are high enough without chasing anything extra. The only thing we chase is black spot. The next step is to look at a rootstock that is resistant to black spot. We spend a lot of money on fungicide.”
Twist tie pheromone mating disruptors are put out in September for Codling Moth.
“We have nine traps on the orchard and someone to monitor them for us and we’ve only found one this year,” Bruce said.
Managing the new future
Managing orchards in different regions has allowed the Nightingales to test where new varieties perform best.
“Batlow turns cold quickly and the north east has an Indian summer,” Bruce said. “They might have the same daytime temperature but the nights are colder so the Granny Smith can get a pink blush. We grow the Rosy Glow (apples from which are marketed as Pink Lady®) and the Granny Smith in the north east.”
Red Delicious and half the Gala are grown at the higher altitude Batlow orchards, where there are also new plantings of the managed varieties Scilate (marketed as Envy™) and Nicoter (marketed as Kanzi®). The biggest crop in the north east is Rosy Glow, with Gala, Scifresh (marketed as Jazz™) and Kanzi also grown.
“Red Delicious are disappearing and we no longer have any Cripps Pink,” Don said. “The older plantings are being removed due to low production and high cost. We have some old Granny Smith getting 30-40t/ha. We are keen to plant them on a new system.”
Keeping up with the latest systems, developments and better ways of doing things is given a high priority.
Don said they make regular trips to New Zealand where they had been able to visit orchards with AgFirst advisors and see how the New Zealand industry was tackling issues similar to those facing Australian growers.
“One thing we could learn from them is collaboration,” he said. “They are working together. The big packhouses are working for 20 growers and they are doing their best for all 20.”
They also read a lot, attended Future Orchard walks and worked with local advisor Marcel Veen.
The step into managed varieties was taken after careful consideration and varieties from a number of variety managers now form part of a mix with free varieties.
The Nightingales were late to join the Jazz programme.
“That block is now almost at full production and we are aiming for 60-65t/ha,” Bruce said.
He said the different varieties came with different growing challenges and they had learnt a lot from Montague’s Batlow orchard manager Barry McLean.
“We were very lucky with Rosy Glow he said. “It was an easy apple to grow. These heavier apples need a different approach and have an enormous demand for calcium.”
But he said the experience would help them grow better apples.
“Club varieties make better growers of us,” he said. “They make us think harder.”