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Virtual Winter Walks delivers insights to growers from comfort of their own orchards

Research & Extension

Over the course of the last three weeks, APAL streamed virtual Future Orchards® Winter Orchard Walks live to over 250 individuals across eight apple and pear growing regions.

With COVID-19 related travel restrictions preventing the walks from taking place in person, technology was the saviour. Growers and other industry personnel tuned in from across the country from the comfort of their own orchards, offices or living rooms. At various orchards, there was often a group of socially distanced growers congregated together for the Walks, meaning the overall attendance figure was likely to be much higher.

The unique situation gave APAL the opportunity to cross the Tasman to see leading orchards in New Zealand without ever having to get on a plane. In total, the eight Winter Walks visited four orchards in New Zealand, giving growers a range of different insights.

The Future Orchards program is funded by the apple and pear industry R&D levy and contributions from the Australian Government, managed by Hort Innovation.

APAL would like to thank everyone who participated in the Future Orchards walks, including expert guests and Frontline Advisors, and of course growers who attended.

The Winter Walks webinars are available here.

APAL Winter Walks Review

The theme for the June Winter Orchard Walks was ‘The Future is Now’, and there were certainly plenty of forward thinking presentations from a variety of experts.

Dr Nigel Swarts from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) presented outcomes from the PIPS II fertigation research project and the SINATA tool, AgFirst consultants Jonathon Brookes (northern loop) and Steve Spark (southern loop) gave a thought-provoking overview, with telling examples from New Zealand of what the Australian apple and pear industries might consider to remain globally competitive into the future.

We also visited several leading New Zealand apple orchards to learn about different canopy and tree structures, pruning and thinning techniques and fruit walls. The Future Orchards Front Line Advisors (FLAs) provided an update on the orchard trials in their region and on the southern loop Ross Wilson, AgFirst, gave an update on the PIPS II IPDM project.

Throughout the walks, key issues were looked at, from nitrogen, irrigation, labour, technology and consumer sentiments. Check out our findings from some of the biggest topics in apple growing:

Is it possible to manage nitrogen and irrigation rates and timing to satisfy tree demand without compromising fruit quality?

Research outcomes presented by Nigel Swarts during the June Future Orchards walks show there are opportunities to use inputs such as water and nutrients more efficiently without compromising yield or quality.

Over the past three years, Dr Nigel Swarts and his team have been developing SINATA (Strategic Irrigation and Nitrogen Assessment Tool for Apples). SINATA relies on understanding how an apple tree uses nitrogen and water resources to better manage the timing and rate of application of these inputs to satisfy tree demand.  The tool has been populated with a range of orchard (Orchard Net™), soil, hydrological and meteorological data to develop a model that enables users to optimise irrigation and nitrogen regimes for their orchard.  The user can enter relevant local orchard variables such as soil type, apple variety, tree age, row spacing, irrigation type and local meteorological data to obtain information about how much water and nitrogen a tree is likely to use. It also enables the user to set yield targets to determine required inputs.  The better the data that is entered, the more reliable the tool.

Monitoring of sap flow in trees in Tasmanian and Victorian orchards showed that 2 and 3 year old trees – at height of summer – use approximately 5-6 L water /tree/day. During fruiting in more mature trees, this can be as high as 10L/tree/day.  This type of data was used in developing the model.

To further improve the reliability of the tool, it was essential to understand the physiology of the apple tree – how is the nitrogen partitioned throughout the tree over a season?

Nigel and his team applied labelled nitrogen through an irrigation system to track uptake and partitioning of nitrogen in apple trees following fertiliser application at different times during the cropping cycle. In winter, nitrogen is stored in the trunk, roots, branches of the tree. The team showed that winter storage over the dormancy period provides a significant portion of the N requirements until about 4 weeks after full bloom. Stored nitrogen is remobilised in the tree during spring to contribute to growth. Root uptake of nitrogen occurs after full bloom.

When nitrogen was applied in spring, trees were more able to take up the nitrogen and use it more efficiently that when nitrogen was applied post-harvest.  When applied in spring, more than 50% of the nitrogen was allocated to the fruit. At harvest when fruit is removed from the tree, they observed that nitrogen levels in leaves increased further demonstrating that the fruit draws a lot of nitrogen while on the tree.  Assessment of harvested fruit over two seasons indicated that there were no negative impacts on fruit quality with a lower, more frequent nitrogen application rate.

SINATA will be made available on the APAL website in the coming months.

What does this mean for the apple grower?

Good data is essential to make good decisions. The amount of nitrogen that is removed with fruit at harvest plus the growth requirement of the tree = the amount of nitrogen required.  SINATA can help to determine this requirement, reducing waste and costs.  It is possible to achieve nitrogen allocation to storage with preharvest application without compromising fruit quality and size.

The Future is now – what are you doing about it?

The Future Orchards has been running since 2016 (the program began in 2006). Jonathan (northern loop) and Steve (southern loop) considered the future changes of key areas addressed during the current program including quality, variety, climate, technology, and labour.

If you don’t keep the customer happy, someone else will.

When considering the quality of your fruit, have you thought about the customer?  What about the inputs used, or the sustainability or social responsibility of the way in which the apples were grown? Steve and Jonathan stated that the customer is always right – consider what they want and what they are willing to pay for, whether that be in a domestic or export market.  Consumer and market requirements are changing.  Is it better to drive the change than let ourselves be driven?

Are you in a club?

Jonathan says it may be better to be in the club than out.  Club varieties can offer opportunities that others do not – many varieties have good marketing support that can add value to fruit. In New Zealand and overseas, supermarkets are opting for exclusive rights to particular varieties. Having an orchard planted to club varieties has also proven to be lucrative when selling the orchard in New Zealand.  Steve says, if you have a variety that doesn’t do so well, don’t stress – it is relatively quick to regraft with something better. Ultimately all varieties come with risks and rewards – they need to be considered on an individual basis.

Long term sustainable management relies on understanding the orchard location and associated risks

We are increasingly being exposed to more challenging and erratic climatic conditions.  Some areas currently used to grow apples are marginal. Steve echoed a grower’s question: “Are you growing apples in the right area?”

It is becoming difficult to find varieties that suit that challenging climates but growers still need to still get the yield and packout to make a profit.  Even in New Zealand this year, the winter chill is well below the 5 year average.  Technologies, sensors and models are being developed to help manage the risk and make better decisions within the orchard.

Everyone has their own preference when it comes to tree systems

The message regarding canopy design was consistent and clear – the more standardisation within an orchard, the easier it is for staff, labour and technology to adapt.  Having said that, every grower and advisor still has their favourite system – including Ross, Jonathan and Steve.

Technology can be as simple as a piece of string

Steve reminisced when Future Orchards first began, that using a piece of string to pull down branches of trees increased flowering and yield.  A lot of progress has been made since then from platforms and robotic harvesters, to mapping sensors and drones that can determine yield and even tree vigour so that root pruning can be targeted to even out the orchard quality and reduce vigour.  Technology may not always be as simple as a piece of string, but it remains that it does need to be cost effective, locally repairable, provide a benefit, and most importantly, adaptable to the orchard.  The need to set up orchards to fit robotics and automated systems also remains. There were several opinions on what technology has had the greatest impact in NZ apple industry including trellis systems (Steve), varieties (Jonathan) and supply of labour through island scheme (Ross).

Labour concerns

Labour is becoming an increasing concern both in New Zealand and in many regions across Australia, particularly in the current Covid-19 climate. Ross stated, “We keep referring to PPP – productivity, packout and price, but also need to include labour efficiency here.” In New Zealand growers are investing in capital to overcome potential labour shortages.  There is also an increasing focus on efficiency and effectiveness. AgFirst promoted investing in a thorough pruning to reduce potential labour requirements later in the year. Aim to get closer to the target crop load during winter while there is still available labour – spend more on pruning now to do it well.  Tasks done well and early often make it easier and less expensive later on.

Virtual orchard walks

AgFirst recorded a number of orchard walks with growers in New Zealand.  Take a look at Waima Orchard (Jazz, calm, consistent canopy), Apatu Farms (2D system) , Sunpeach (Envy; pruning demonstration), Hoddy’s Fruit Co (2 D system) and The Pines orchard (Low cost fruiting wall). These are available on the APAL website.

In summary, continuous improvement is important to make existing orchards profitable into the future.  Continue to learn, try and apply.  There has, in the past, often been reluctance to take on new ideas, but trying new things has paid off (remember the piece of string).  New ideas and change may also keep younger people motivated in the orchard.

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