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Passion for quality the Smart approach at Tingira

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Target markets, target fruit counts and sizes and no tolerance for poor quality fruit in the harvest bin are part of a quality-focused approach paying profits at the Smart family’s Batlow orchard Tingira.

Key points

  • Premium fruit brings premium prices 
  • Goal for single pick at harvest 
  • Pruning sets up crop for quality 
  • Simplicity and efficiency

Jeremy Smart makes sure any sub-quality fruit is gone from the trees before harvest, lifting packouts and reducing packing costs at Tingira. Photo: Matt Beaver

In 2023, 98 per cent of the apple crop at the Smart family’s orchard, Tingira, was harvested as a single pick, the season average packout was 84.7 per cent Class 1 fruit and the average orchard gate revenue (OGR) was comfortably above industry 2023 forecast modelling of $456/bin.

The impressive results are the outcome of a laser-sharp quality-first strategy at the 23-hectare orchard in New South Wales’ Batlow region run by fourth-generation grower Jeremy Smart and parents Michael and Sharon. 

It is a strategy that is securing Tingira consistently good margins, allowing reinvestment and renewal and giving them confidence in the outlook for the business. 

“Quality underpins everything we do,” Jeremy said. “We are all passionate about growing quality fruit. Mum and Dad have always maintained a focus on quality and that has led us to where we are now.” 

As harvest kicked off in early March, the orchard was as smart as the family name. Nestled in the premium growing region of Batlow, where high altitude and climate combine to deliver the cool nights and warm days ideal for producing crisp, high coloured fruit, block after block of neat, well-structured trees laden with evenly sized and coloured fruit awaited the harvest. 

Michael and Sharon bought Tingira, at Kunama, near Batlow, in 1980, and built it up from a few acres of apples, expanding and updating varieties over the years, into the premium fruit producing business it is today.  

After working off-farm as a chef in the hospitality industry, Jeremy returned to the business in 2018 where he is already making his own mark in the industry as a progressive grower, while continuing the family passion for quality. 

Target market drives decision 

The path to premiums at Tingira starts with the customer. What they want and what they’ll pay. 

Jeremy said the main driver was identifying the target market and then making sure fruit hits that target.  

“If you aren’t growing for your market range, what’s the point?” he said. 

Tingira targets premium pricing available from independent retailers for quality fruit sold under the iconic local Batlow Apples brand. All fruit is packed, stored and marketed through the Batlow Fruit company, for which Jeremy’s grandfather, well known apple grower Bruce Bowden was a director in the 1980s. 

“Batlow Apples is a well-recognised brand and always attracts a premium price,” Jeremy said. “The majority of our fruit will end up in the independent retailers and our general target range for most varieties is 60-70 count, with some exceptions.  

“We don’t look at the supermarkets, that’s not our market. We are aiming for that premium product to hit the independents. They pay more money, and they want the premium product. 

“The only way is to year on year, hit the best market; even if prices are low, if you’ve got the best product, you’ll get the best price for the year.” 

Although relatively small in land size, Tingira is producing 2000-2500 bins annually of high-colour Gala, Rosy Glow, Fuji and Red Chief/Delicious apples, with newer managed varieties Nicoter (sold as Kanzi®) and WA38 (Cosmic Crisp®) making up 28 per cent of plantings.   

Most are grown as single spindle on M26 rootstock – newer plantings are moving to twin leader on M9. All blocks are netted for hail, birds and flying foxes, but are opened before winter snows arrive.  

“The anti-hail netting has been a real game changer,” Jeremy said. “I was encouraged to leave the orchard after school when mum and dad had suffered several consecutive years of crop losses due to hail and frost. 

“We are now 100 per cent covered and wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

Rigorous pruning is used to set trees up early, enabling even light and spray penetration and ease of management. Photo: Matt Beaver

Single pick goal 

A big part of Tingira’s crop management is rigorous thinning to make sure fruit that won’t make the grade is off the trees before harvest and does not leave the property and incur costly post-harvest charges. 

Prior to harvest fruit that is too small, damaged or Class 2 is hand thinned, with a single pick of consistent fruit the goal. 

Jeremy said getting new staff to grasp the level of thinning required was often a challenge. 

“I can never get them to thin as hard as I want them to thin,” he said. “They’re like, ‘I’ve taken all the fruit off’ and I’m ‘Yeah, that’s what I want you to do.’” 

“The only way we can do it is to go down this route,” he said. “Storage, packing and marketing are our three biggest charges. Long term storage might cost several hundred dollars/bin and that’s not including on-farm costs. There’s no point us sending average fruit off farm and storing it. 

“We go over it and we thin. We don’t pre-grade, we grade it, or groom it, on the tree. If you’re paying a picker a bin rate, they will put everything in the bin. If it’s not there, they can’t put it in. That’s my goal, that we don’t have any rubbish on the tree at picking time to be put in the bin. Keep it simple.” 

Tingira has relied on maturity testing for decades to make sure fruit is harvested at optimal maturity to secure the best marketing outcomes and get the best quality fruit to customers. 

“We aim is to start blocks for long term storage at a starch plate of 2 with the sugar (Brix) above 12 and move forward from there,” Jeremy said. 

“My grandfather always said pick everything for CA (controlled atmosphere storage),” Jeremy said, “Even if you plan to send it straight to pack, it’s still got two weeks until it hits the shelves, and it will be in a better-quality position.” 

The Revo harvest platform has both halved pruning costs and contributed to a lift in packouts at harvest. Photo: Matt Beaver

After 15 years of converting the orchard from 5m rows to set it up for harvest assist machinery, Tingira bought a Revo harvest platform in 2021, one of the few orchards in the hilly region flat enough to be able to use them.  

In 2023 close to 50 per cent of the crop was picked with the one platform and six pickers. 

“Thanks to Dad’s progressive thinking, we now have close to 80 per cent of our orchard on 3.5m rows, making it more platform-friendly,” Jeremy said. “After three years, we are already looking towards purchasing a second platform.” 

Jeremy said while the biggest cost saving of the platform was at pruning, where it halved costs, paying hourly rather than piece rate at harvest as required on the platform had also contributed to quality gains.  

“We’re getting less bruising, and we are still getting pickers to grade a little bit at picking if there was something that was missed in that thinning and grooming stage” he said. “With the platform, we can get them to throw that on the ground. They’re not trying to fill the bins, so they’re happy to go, that’s not quite right, I’ll put it on the ground. That’s helped lift our packouts as well.” 

Last season packouts ranged from 68 per cent Class 1 from the older, bigger Fuji trees to 98 per cent Class 1 Alvina Gala and 93 per cent Class 1 Kanzi and, despite the rigorous thinning, the best yielding blocks still achieved 80 tonne/ha. 

Sharon checks fruit sizes in the lead up to harvest. Photo: Matt Beaver

Set trees up early 

Crop load targets are set to deliver the target fruit size and managing crop loads to hit targets starts at winter pruning with an emphasis on setting trees up for ease of management. 

“If we get the pruning right, we’ve got the tree structure right; everything else is easy from there,” Jeremy said. “You’ve got the light, the fruit are easier to see, all of your chemicals get applied to the tree correctly because you’re not trying to push it through a bigger canopy.” 

Blind wood has been a problem in some blocks, but Jeremy said pruning fairly aggressively to take out all but the smaller side shoots, taken back to secateur length, had successfully stimulated buds further back up the limbs without loss of yield.   

Pruning hard over last winter to improve tree structure and bring bud counts closer to targets earlier delivered stronger buds, good fruit set and better sizing but Jeremy said the strength of the buds had made chemical thinning less effective. 

“The idea is that the buds are stronger and should survive a frost event and that was borne out for us,” Jeremy said. “We had five or six apples on every site in some blocks and there was a bit more hand thinning involved in that.” 

With target sizing always in sight, if extra thinning was required it was done. 

“Dad always says, if the job needs doing, it needs doing properly,” he said. “Coming out of kitchens where we worked to budgets, I was wanting to know what’s the budget, what can I afford to spend, but we are not restricting ourselves to budgets as such. If you only do half a job, what does it cost you in the end?  

“Fuji for us last year were too small, and that cost us, so this year we’ve gone harder with them to make sure we get them to size. The Reds were too big, so we’re trying to hold more of them on the tree.”  

Tingira has been soil testing for 4–5 years to build up better knowledge of the soils and foliar testing this season. Foliar calcium is applied, magnesium and boron in the wetter springs. 

But Jeremy said although young trees were given plenty of nitrogen to get them growing, it had been five seasons since they had applied nitrogen on the ground to cropping trees due to the impact on colour. 

“We were putting nitrogen on early and then applying potassium later to improve colour, to offset the effect of nitrogen we had put on earlier. We don’t need the growth and we know if we apply less nitrogen we have better colour.” 

Netting against birds, bats and hail has been a ‘game changer’. Photo: Matt Beaver

Narrow orchards 

Jeremy said Tingira did not push yield beyond what the trees can carry and, with the exception of Fuji, has little issue with biennial bearing. 

“No one’s been able to say here’s a 100-tonne crop at 95 per cent pack out,” he said. “The only way we can see tonnage increasing without sacrificing quality is by increasing tree density.” 

The gradual renewal of the orchard from wider rows is increasing density and production. New blocks are now coming in from 3.5m to 3m. 

‘We are still on a spindle tree and also heading towards a 2D-style planting,” Jeremy said. “It is easier to give instructions for pruning, thinning and tree training and allows us to use our platform at all growing stages, all leading to ease of management and higher profitability.” 

The two leaders trained down to form the base of the 8-leader cordon, these WA38 (Cosmic Crisp®) trees have been planted at a 3m row x 2.4m tree spacing as part of the national Narrow orchard systems for future climates project. Photo: Kevin Dodds, NSW DPI

Tingira is participating in the new five-year national Narrow orchards for future climates project funded by Hort Innovation and partners, and led by Agriculture Victoria, which will look at the potential for the systems to lift yield and packout and be more efficient to manage, profitable and resilient. 

Working with local temperate fruit development officer Kevin Dodds, of the NSW DPI, four rows of WA38 (144 trees) on NIC29 rootstock have been planted at Tingira at a row spacing of 3m and tree spacing of 2.4m, with the plan to grow eight leaders per tree, 30cm apart on each cordon. 

Jeremy said the trial was a great opportunity to see how the system performed in his own commercial conditions and identify opportunities to improve orchard performance and profitability. 

He said he was still a little sceptical about how the reported yields could be delivered on the very narrow and open canopies. 

“That’s what I’m excited to see,” he said. 

While similar systems in New Zealand have used 2m row spacings, Jeremy said the Tingira planting had to fit within the realities of their current system. 

“We had to be able to use our existing equipment, so we’ve compromised a little on the row width,” Jeremy said.  

Varieties that colour up evenly assist the Smart family to meet its goal of  harvesting in a single pick. Photo: Matt Beaver

Variety mix 

Tingira is one of a small group of growers nationally licensed to grow the highly anticipated Washington State University-bred WA38 cultivar, sold as Cosmic Crisp® and managed in Australia by Red Rich Fruits. 

To be grown only in the Batlow, Manjimup, WA and Yarra Valley, Vic, regions, the first Cosmic Crisp apples are expected to hit stores in July this year.  

Jeremy said the appeal of Cosmic Crisp was partly the appearance and eating ability of the apple itself, which shot into the top 10 best-selling apples in the United States in 2023, but mainly Red Rich’s management. 

 “This apple is shaping up to be a real grower and consumer-friendly apple,” he said. “But there are that many apples on the market, if an apple is not marketed properly, you’ve got no hope. Red Rich’s business values align with our own focus on quality.”  

Tingira renews 10 per cent of trees annually based on factors including age and health of trees, cost of production and age and quality of netting. 

Block colour varieties are seen as positive going forward and staples such as Gala and cultivars sold as Pink Lady that are well known to and liked by customers are a constant.  

“Varieties that colour up evenly mean we can harvest in a single pick and this makes it more efficient and cost effective,” Jeremy said. 

“We have Gala lined up for this year, WA38 (Cosmic Crisp) lined up for next year and Pink Eve for the year after that.” 

Older Fujis with biennial bearing issues, high labour costs and netting at the end of its life are going out, but Jeremy said a 35-year-old block of Red Delicious on a 5m spacing that was consistently yielding 75t/HA and profitable would be kept. 

“They are as good as Gala and they are cheaper to maintain,” he said. “The managed varieties aren’t bringing a lot more after everyone takes their cut.” 

Tingira has embraced the flexibility offered by its smaller size to be as progressive as it can.

Data-driven decisions 

Having a firm grasp on costs is crucial for decision making and the Smarts have been using the Victorian-developed orchard management software GrowData, now owned by Queensland agtech solutions company Inform Ag, for 25 years. Jeremy said while he would like to see more functions brought into the app, he had not found another program with the functionality and compliance reporting offered by GrowData for a competitive price.  

Live data and tech have also been harnessed at Tingira to improve effective control of codling moth, powdery mildew and black spot, reducing chemical costs and labour input. 

After years of manually checking traps for codling moth, putting out expensive mating disruption pheromones and using models based on distant weather stations Tingira has installed their own weather station and taken an annual subscription to the RIMPro pest management support system. 

Backed up by iScout® traps with built in cameras that send photos to his phone twice daily, Jeremy said the outlay had paid for itself already in reduced chemicals outlay. 

“We’ve got a black spot model, a powdery mildew model, but the big one is the codling moth model with our own data. We can pinpoint when to apply the chemical, so no wasted chemical and we haven’t had a problem since.” 

Jeremy is a fan of integrated pest and disease management. Heavier chemicals have been dropped and the orchard seeded with earwigs for early woolly apple aphid control, with the parasitic wasp Aphelinus mali providing good control later in the season. 

Small has its advantages 

At a time when margins are under pressure and there has been a flurry of amalgamations to create larger enterprises, Jeremy says there are some advantages in being small. 

“The way I see it, we are like a small ship, it’s easy to turn around if we see an issue,” Jeremy said. “We’ve got that flexibility. That’s our advantage.” 

But he doesn’t buy the argument that Tingira’s premium production and profitability are entirely attributable to its smaller size. 

“We get the comments that ‘your quality is really good, but that’s because you’re small,” he said. “To me, it’s about scale. Whether you do 2500 bins or three times that, it’s how you manage it. 

“I don’t think we are doing anything different; we are just trying to implement as much as we can that will help improve the orchard output. 

Jeremy credits the shared passion for continuous improvement, in which Michael is very much a driver, as key to Tingira’s flexibility to change and grow. 

“I am excited about how progressive the orchard is able to be and about the opportunities we have for finding new and better ways to grow fruit more efficiently,” he said. 

He is optimistic too about the outlook both for Tingira, and for Batlow Apples following the announcement last year that the 102-year-old business and its majority owner Ausfarm Fresh would combine operations with Red Rich Fruits to create a vertically integrated apple, mango and mandarin business. 

“Red Rich are on the same page as us,” Jeremy said, “They are a company that aligns with what we do, with our own ethos of, and passion for, quality. 

“Quality is what keeps us afloat.’ 

 

This article was first published in the Autumn 2024 edition of AFG.

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