Supporting growers to manage orchards in the face of looming water shortages was top of the agenda when apple and pear industry leaders met in Melbourne this week.
State Association representatives from across the country converged on Melbourne during Hort Connections to share regional outlooks and issues, and discuss strategies for managing common national issues.
Dealing with drought and water shortage dominated discussion in the ‘on the couch’ public session during APAL’s Industry Forum on Monday, with Stanthorpe and Orange facing severe water shortages this year and all regions, but Western Australia, looking at some pressure on water availability.
New South Wales Farmers Association Horticulture Policy Director Robert Hardie said 98 per cent of the state was now drought declared and there was ‘too much drought and not enough water’.
“How can we sustain permanent plantings if we have another dry summer,” he said. “It is very challenging. If you are a livestock producer you can destock, but if you are a fruit producer you can wait four to five years for an income. We need to focus on supporting those growing permanent plantings.”
Queensland-based horticultural advisor Stephen Tancred, Orchard Services, said Granite Belt growers were out of water and facing costs of $7-8,000/ML to cart in water to keep trees alive.
“We are in trouble too,” he said. “We’ve only had to do it once before and that was 12 years ago, just to finish the crop. We are waiting for rain, but it is difficult when pruning to know what to prioritise.”
Hort Connections fell between the southern and northern loops of the latest Future Orchards® walks round which looked at options for building climate change resilience, including minimising water use by the installation of netting, mulching, drip irrigation, reducing leaf area, thinning and focussing on productive blocks for return while maintaining young blocks for the following year.
Fruit Growers Victoria (FGV) chair Mitchell McNab said the Goulburn Valley in Central Victoria had experienced one of the hottest summers on record, impacting on fruit quality. With dam levels low, he said the coming season was shaping up as a challenging one for growers trying to maintain permanent plantings.
Irrigators on the Goulburn and Murray rivers in Northern Victoria who have received 100 per cent allocation on their entitlements in recent years, received opening allocations for the 2019/20 season this week of a low two per cent of high reliability water share (HRWS) entitlement. Temporary water in the rivers is trading at $500/megalitre.
“Unless we have substantial rain over the winter, I don’t think we will get to 50pc,” Mitchell said. “If that’s the case there will be some hard decisions to be made about whether growers can afford some blocks or will have to walk away from some.”
Mitchell said many growers were already looking at options for future proofing orchards including netting and overhead sprinklers.
“I think it’s going to be a trying year. A lot of growers are starting to feel the pinch,” he said.
Managing the impact of new overtime provisions in the Horticulture Award, and the introduction of Labour Hire Licensing laws in Victoria, Queensland and SA is also likely to dominate the coming months.
Mitchell said many harvest workers used the peak season to earn money through short periods of intense work, often choosing to work longer than the 38 hours a week above which overtime rates must be paid. The challenge for growers would be meeting their earnings expectations while not letting already-high labour costs spiral out of control.
Moving to piece rates and split shifts in packing sheds to spread the work over more employees might be an option, but would mean more administration, which was disappointing.
Sourcing seasonal labour was raised as an ongoing issue, but the expanding Seasonal Workers Program (SWP) identified as a reliable and impressive source of return labour helping to meet demand.
Labour Hire Licensing regulations kick in this year in Vic, QLD and SA with all labour hire providers required to be licensed in Queensland since 15 June, in Victoria by October 31 and in South Australia by 1 November.
Apple and pears growers of SA (APGASA) CEO Susie Green told the forum a move to repeal Labour Hire Licensing regulations in South Australia had failed to secure Legislative Council support. Labour hire providers now have until 31 August to lodge licence applications with the South Australian Government’s Consumer and Business Services unit and until 1 November to be licensed.
Boosting apple and pear consumption remains a focus, with quality identified as key to growing demand.
Pomewest Executive Officer Nardia Stacy outlined work in WA to set the first grower-led specifications nationally for apple varieties not covered by club membership and guidelines, towards lifting quality and consumption in Cripps Pink (sold as Pink Lady®), Gala and Granny Smith.
Workshops on testing fruit maturity, (similar testing is also being down by in Victoria by Fruit Growers Victoria), backed by how to guides for growers to use for their own on-orchard testing and random testing at delivery points had been successful in raising awareness of the need to focus on fruit maturity at harvest.
“It is worth getting the standards up, yes, I think it is,” Nardia said.
Robert urged growers to actively participate in policy development by engaging with their peak bodies and bringing issues to their attention.
He said peak bodies acted to ‘fast forward’ ideas and issues raised by growers, but could not create policy in isolation.
“We can only be as effective as the people guiding us,” he said. “It’s a really big challenge.
“If you think there is something that is not being dealt with that is affecting your farm, get in touch. (Change is achieved) not by sitting on your hands but by putting your hand up. Do get involved.”
Contact details for State Associations are listed on APAL’s website under Our Partners.