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Real opportunity for sustainable and profitable orchards

Industry Best Practice

This article was first published in AFG – Autumn 2022 edition.

The orchard floor is a place where we can really influence key sustainability principles while at the same time improving soil structure and productivity.

 

The PIPS3 Program aims to help orchardists produce quality apples both profitably and sustainably. But what does sustainable orcharding really mean? PIPS3 researcher Dr Sally Bound from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) has reviewed the scientific and non-academic literature to help describe what an orchard based on sustainable agriculture principles could look like.

The PIPS3 team for Improved Australian apple and pear orchards soil health and plant nutrition (AP19006) have set up orchard demonstration plots to test and authenticate some of these principles.

What does sustainable agriculture/orcharding mean?

Sustainable agriculture has been defined in many ways and the meaning is still evolving.

It really comes down to how far you want to look to the future. Is the land where you currently grow apples going to be just as productive in 10, 50 or 100 years? Sustainable orcharding looks to the long-term and that means future generations.

Sustainable agriculture is managing the land so that it can continue to produce food for future generations whilst preserving the natural resources of soil, water, flora and fauna.

However, being sustainable is not just about preservation of the land, it also needs to be economically viable for the orchardist.

What makes an orchard system sustainable?

Apples have been productively grown in the same ground for many hundreds of years. The Cistercian monks in Poland recorded apple cultivation from the 12th century and one of the oldest orchards still growing apples in Tasmania dates back to 1880. This demonstrates that orcharding can be a long-term sustainable system. Even as trees are replanted with new cultivars, training or irrigation systems, the underlying principles of sustainability still apply.

Typically, a sustainable orchard system is highly diverse with many different species of living organisms. This diversity gives the system resilience and balance both above and below ground. This means the system rebounds quickly from disturbances or even the impact of climatic events such as high rainfall or drought. In apple production, these living organisms provide direct services to the productivity and health of the orchard including:

  • pollination
  • biological pest and disease regulation
  • weed suppression
  • nutrient cycling
  • maintenance of soil physical structure and chemical fertility.

And broader services such as:

  • carbon storage
  • regulation of soil and water quality and availability
  • breakdown of wastes and toxins
  • maintaining genetic diversity.

Roots and macropores are signs of a well-aerated, free-draining resilient soil able to support good soil life.

 

Compacted soils, as often found in tractor wheel ruts, have minimal soil fauna and poor water infiltration.

 

 

Is sustainable agriculture just letting nature take over?

The sustainable agricultural or orchard system, whilst relying on nature, is very highly influenced by human intervention, and for good reason. It is an artificially created system that needs our intervention to create the best balance of components to support apple production. This might be planting the right species to improve soil function, encouraging beneficial organisms and deterring pests and disease, managing the interrow to reduce frost risk and allow efficient harvest, or applying synthetic inputs more strategically to optimise benefit. It’s using many tools with a focus on enhancing the natural ecosystem.

How is it different to other systems?

Conventional (sometimes termed industrial) agriculture traditionally has a high reliance on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. It is often less diverse than a balanced agroecosystem and may have more bare ground. The extreme version of a conventional orchard would be a monoculture, often hundreds of hectares, with no other plant or animal species, with high inputs of water, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Naturally, there is a wide spectrum of production systems from highly industrialised to highly sustainable.

Just as conventional agriculture covers a wide spectrum of intensity, there are other alternative agricultural systems that may or may not be highly sustainable. For instance, organic production is widely perceived as sustainable but in reality, not all organic production is sustainable. For instance, I might grow my apples organically by not using synthetic pesticides or fertiliser. But I create a very simple ecosystem with low diversity by repeatedly using a steam weeder leaving the soil bare and vulnerable to degradation and loss. Other systems promoted as alternatives to conventional agriculture include ‘low input’, ‘biological’ and more recently ‘regenerative’.

All of these may or may not lead to sustainable production. Regenerative agriculture is based on principles closely aligned to achieving sustainable agriculture. Regenerative practices strive to do more good than harm by actively giving back, renewing, restoring and achieving net benefit to the system.

Mixed species inter-row plantings, such as this one in a PIPS3 trial block in the Huon Valley, can deliver both soil and biocontrol benefits.

PIPS3 project testing and demonstrating the principles of sustainable agriculture

Caption

Mixed species inter-row plantings, such as this one in a PIPS3 trial block in the Huon Valley, can deliver both soil and biocontrol benefits.

In orchard systems, there is real scope to achieve a highly sustainable production system due to the perennial nature of the crop and low soil disturbance. The orchard floor is a place we can really influence key sustainability principles to reduce pesticide, herbicide and synthetic fertiliser use, and at the same time improve soil structure and productivity. This is the desirable outcome from the PIPS3 Program projects.

PIPS3 AP19006 project is testing key principles of a sustainable production system with different orchard floor management strategies:

  1. Biodiversity: How does the orchard floor affect the biodiversity present in the orchard and what is the consequence for apple tree productivity, pests, diseases and fruit quality?
  2. Measurable soil health: This includes improved soil organic matter, soil biodiversity and maintaining soil cover to improve the physical and chemical functioning of the root zone.
  3. Biocontrol strategies: How well do our biocontrol strategies work under different orchard floor management strategies?

The project is also evaluating the economic and practical management implications associated with each of these three principles. While there are likely to be short-term transitional hurdles to overcome, long-term benefit to the overall farming system, business and surrounding environment is the focus of sustainable orcharding.

Dr Sally Bound hand sowing inter-row treatments.

 

 

Acknowledgement: The PIPS3 Program’s  Improved Australian apple and pear orchards soil health and plant nutrition project (AP19006) project has been funded by Hort Innovation, using the apple and pear research and development levy, contributions from the Australian Government and co-investment from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture. Hort Innovation is the grower-owned, not-for-profit research and development corporation for Australian horticulture.

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