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Quality over quantity as growers report volumes down

Industry Best Practice

Apple and pear volumes could be down as much as 10 per cent on pre-harvest forecasts according to end of season grower harvest reports, but the good news is that quality is up.

Pink Lady® apples ready to be harvested in the next couple of days in southern Victoria.

As Australia’s apple and pear crop harvest moves into its final weeks, Apple and Pear Australia (APAL) is receiving anecdotal feedback from growers across Australia that crop volumes are down on expectations.  In fact, many believe that the total volume is at least 10 percent down on what they budgeted on at the start of the season.

The annual Apple and Pear Crop Estimate initiated by APAL in 2015 and prepared by agricultural consultants AgFirst, is fast becoming recognised as a valuable guide to early decision-making throughout the industry.  The project is delivered by AgFirst and funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited using the research and development apple and pear levy with matched funds from the Australian Government.

In February AgFirst forecast a 0.8 per cent rise in the national pomefruit crop, relatively similar to that recorded last year.  Gross volumes for apples were forecast to be 3.1 percent up and pears 6.2 percent down compared with the 2016 season.  Without a complete re-survey it is not possible to say precisely by how much forecasts need to be revised, but most commentary from growers is pointing to a smaller rather than a larger crop for 2017.

Although gross volume is expected to be down, overall 2017 has been an excellent apple and pear season for quality due to milder more favourable growing conditions.  The cooler weather we are experiencing is excellent for colour development and in 2017 we will be seeing some of the best coloured fruit seen in a long time.

Some issues with sunburn have occurred, particularly when the fruit in this cooler weather are generally not conditioned to the sudden exposure to hot temperatures which generally leads the fruit to be more conducive to damage. This has been the case particularly for the Adelaide Hills region where orchards have suffered sunburn damage, as hail damage and dimpling bug, above what is standard.

Due to a cool and wet spring the apple and pear harvest has been mostly two weeks later than normal.  This year many apple regions at the start of May are now still at only early stages of Pink Lady harvest, which normally commences early to mid-April.  Also as a result of the slow drawn out flowering in spring most varieties are experiencing more mixed maturities, a widening size range and where multi-pick varieties are involved growers are tending to choose not to pick a third time due to the likely loss of quality and packouts.

While the average size is similar to expectations, growers are reporting the size range is wider with fruit in either the too large category or too small for getting the best Class 1 return.  Although this is mixed where blocks are quite heavy, the size is down particularly in parts of Batlow, Goulburn Valley and Stanthorpe.

The major club varieties Kanzi®, Jazz™ and Modi® have all produced volumes as expected with excellent quality.

The major reasons attributed to the reduced volume range from fruit drop and sunburn caused by sudden heatwaves in districts, to cases where the wet spring with excessively wet soils causing some tree losses.  A longer drawn out flowering over spring as well as extra dimpling bug problems has meant more emphasis on hand thinning to set crop loads.  Where this hand thinning has not been done to its optimum the overall yields and pack out results have suffered.

Through the Future Orchards® project, many Australian growers are taking advantage of the OrchardNet® tool to confidentially enter their fruit size data for useful benchmarking and tracking fruit size targets.  At Regional and National levels this data can be collated for fruit sizes overall trends.

VarietyGrower panel average fruit size (g)Fruit Size Monitoring Forecast (g)
  Royal Gala162161166166166
  Pink Lady177177177175175
  Granny Smith173173174174168

Table 1: Fruit size forecasts for the four major varieties prepared on 21 April 2017 courtesy: Ross Wilson AgFirst

Fruit size forecasts are still tracking as expected. Table 1, taken from OrchardNet®, is indicating that Granny Smith will be smaller and Fuji will be larger for the 2017 season compared to 2016.  Fuji on the larger size range will generally have better eating quality as the textural properties can be enhanced with larger Fuji so this is actually a good thing for consumers.

Regional Reports

In Stanthorpe during the Gala harvest a heat wave occurred from the end of January to mid-February 2017.  This resulted in early fruit drop of Galas and growers are now reporting a 30 percent drop in volume of that variety.  For Stanthorpe this equates to approximately 2,000 tonnes less production.

In the Adelaide Hills it has been reported that Gala is down 20 percent due to heat causing sunburn and fruit drop as seen in Stanthorpe. This loss represents approximately 1,700 tonnes less production.

Most other regions like the Goulburn Valley, Southern Victoria and Tasmania have had better seasons but are still seeing a 5-10 percent drop on what they originally expected.  A five percent drop would mean approximately another 1,700 tonne drop in production to the national gross production of Gala.

Earlier mention was made that the size of Fuji is expected to be higher but growers are stating that in terms of volume this crop is also lower than expected this season.  Results from Granny Smith are unclear and mixed yet many agree size is smaller than normal. Granny Smith was forecast to be 16.6pc up on the 2016 year in gross production.

The quality of Pink Lady is the best in many years. As it is only now being harvested, the actual volume of the Pink Lady crop is still to be determined.

The Goulburn Valley, Stanthorpe and Batlow regions are also getting excellent quality but volumes are mixed where some blocks with heavy crop loads are producing small fruit yet other lighter blocks are getting good size.  While it’s too early to tell exactly, the Goulburn Valley Pink Lady crop volume is probably going to be 10 percent lower than growers expected in January, prior to harvest commencing.

Western Australia is still expecting similar yields to 2016 with a good size.

The forecasted drop in pear production was mainly due to a drop in production of the Buerre Bosc pear in 2017 and a slightly reduced Packham and William pear crop.

This is mostly running as expected except Williams may have a smaller size while Packhams are showing good size profile.   Due to the wet spring growers of both Williams and Packhams are seeing more than usual russetting which may influence final packouts.

The Apple and Pear Crop Estimate 2017 was drawn from data collected in Dec/Jan 2017 from a panel of growers around Australia representing 23 percent of the industry which we consider an excellent dataset.  The fruit sizing on OrchardNet® is providing an indicator that the crop is sizing as expected. A 10pc drop in crop across the country would equate to significantly less pomefruit on the market this season, but the re-surveying required to establish the precise reduction in crop volumes and how widespread they are would be premature while Pink Lady is still being harvested.

Acknowledgements go to the many growers and consultants who provided their inputs and insights into this year’s crop performance.

This article has been prepared as part of the Future Orchards® program that is delivered by APAL and funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Ltd (HIA) using the research and development apple and pear industry levy and funds from the Australian Government. AgFirst is a key Future Orchards partner.

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