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What will the ‘future orchard’ look like?

Industry Best Practice

AgFirst’s Nic Finger outlines what the future might look like for Australian apple and pear orchards in 20-30 years as efficient and simple orchards become more prominent.

There is no denying that current orchard management practices are shifting towards efficient designs whereby productivity is maximised for a given, and often limited, set of resources.

Intensification, slimmer canopies, automation and simplicity all assist in improving orchard efficiency and when coupled with pressure to adapt to changes in markets and the climate; new technologies and their uptake will see even greater advancements.

Orchards in 2017

When looking forward I think it is important that we look at the current situation before speculating where things might be in the future.

Many of the orchards in Australia (and around the world) still have some spectacular examples of ‘new’ management practices from 20-30 years ago that have performed incredibly well. As is to be expected, many other blocks and varieties from the same time period have long since been converted (or met the bulldozer). Research and experience helped to develop these systems and now with decades more research and experience it only makes sense that things have, and are, changing.

The ‘present orchard’ is a spread of development and transition. Some orchards are considerably more advanced than others with plenty of ‘old’ and ‘new’ across many orchards. This will still be somewhat of a reality into the future; transition and development do not happen overnight but the time in which it is done is likely to continue to reduce.

An example of an intensified two-dimensional block. Note that the majority of the fruit are visible from the row; an important property for automated technologies.

Climate limitations

One of the biggest drivers for change in our orchard systems will be the climate. Climate responses will be region dependent but increased risks of sunburn, frost, insufficient winter chill and the timing and amount of rainfall are likely. In short, bad cropping years are likely to become more common.

While there are severe (possibly business ending) challenges in the above there is one positive outcome for those who continue to persevere: necessity will drive innovation.

Improving water use efficiency through a combination of improved water-delivery mechanisms, reduced evaporative losses and improved capture and storage capabilities will all be necessary to combat the harsh Australian climate into the future. Improved water-delivery systems are likely to be accompanied by more fertigation usage also filling the need to establish fast-growing young orchards that meet production faster; minimising the opportunity cost posed by non-bearing and unproductive land.

Current technologies that fight against the realities of extreme temperatures such as overhead cooling, protectant sprays and netting will also see further improvements as uptake becomes more common.

Market demands

The market of the future is hard to predict.

Current trends would suggest that the market’s appetite for ’experiential’ food, where you want to tell everyone about it (just look at the number of people taking pictures of food today against just 10 years ago), is likely to rise.

So where do apples and pears fit into this?

’Agri-tainment’ seems to be getting more and more popular in the United States with people flocking to orchards for pick-your-own fruit alongside tractor rides and petting livestock. As cities continue to grow, these trends are likely to be duplicated here with demand driven by the desire to head out to the country and experience making their own food.

Back in the cities, demand for convenient, ethical, perfect, consistent fruit with low chemical applications is likely to continue (and ironically continue to be disassociated from the realities of fruit-production in light of the rise in agri-tainment).

New apple and pear varieties will continue to enter the (somewhat crowded) market, particularly over the next decade as reduced government-based funding to research organisations worldwide forces a ‘commercialise or perish’ ultimatum for many of the world’s apple and pear breeding programs. Only the best marketed varieties are likely to remain viable.

China and India’s apple and pear production will make itself known to the global market over the next 20 years increasing the need to be as efficient as possible in all aspects of the supply chain.

The rise of data

Data storage has gotten ridiculously cheap in recent years. In the mid-1980s one gigabyte of hard drive space cost about 25 times more than the average new car. Today one gigabyte of hard drive space will set you back just a few cents.

That is just one example of the progression in technology; not taking into account other factors such as transfer speed, access (the internet falls into that timeline) and physical size. While there are some indications that data storage capabilities are slowing down in development; speed and access (internet connectivity) continue to develop and improve at amazing rates.

In short, 30 years from now is a long time on a technology development timescale. The capability for improved data collection, management and real-time processing mean one thing.

Management, and data collection, will move from a block to tree level.

This statement may seem counterintuitive. Trees and branches are already managed as individual units in many orchards on a day-to-day basis. Currently, these tasks are completed by you and your workers in real time relying on tree similarities and prior experience to determine an outcome. Distances, sizes, shapes, colours and scenarios are all considered when working on an individual tree but the reality is each human error and differences in skill results in inconsistencies and deviation from the original plans.

Improvements in data processing and capture will likely see this level of data captured and processed either in real time into decision support systems (to let a worker know how much to thin, or what to prune) and simultaneously stored to improve future decisions in similar scenarios. This is not in 20 to 30 years; these technologies are likely to become commonplace within the next decade. The technology already exists and requires strong visions on both how to apply and commercialise their use in a viable way.

Technologies to look forward to

Computer vision

Computer vision, where a computer is programmed or taught to identify objects based on size, colour, shape or any almost any other characteristic to provide measurements, already exists.

Search the internet for the Australian Centre for Field Robotics for examples that use Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR – a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances) and explore some potential applications of the technologies (work has been done in apples amongst numerous other crops).

This technology can be pushed even further by utilising cameras that look outside what we can see (multispectral and thermal imaging) where aspects of plant health can be calculated to identify pest/disease activity, irrigation scheduling or tree status in terms of vigour.

Soil mapping

Mapping soil variability to apply nutrients and water based on soil and plant requirements is already commonplace in many broadacre operations with centre-pivot irrigators applying different irrigation rates to different areas of the field based on soil types and topographies.

Search the internet for variable rate irrigation and variable rate application for more information.

Autonomous machinery

There are already tractors that are capable of mowing and spraying your entire orchard (and it will even send you a message to refill the vat or fuel tank as needed). Search the internet for videos of the Probotiq Fendt X-pert for an example.

Robotic harvesting

Harvesting of apples autonomously based on colour and size is already possible. Similar repetitive tasks are likely subjects for automation. Search the internet for videos of the Abundant Robotics robotic apple harvester for an example of this technology in action.

The current state of data analytics and technology progression has allowed for all the above to become realities, even if they are not all quite at a commercially viable level yet. Cost, proof-of-concept and logistical challenges are current barriers to adoption of these technologies, but in time these barriers will reduce and a higher uptake and realisation of benefits will occur.

These technologies all help to increase the efficiency of an operation and/or address issues that currently exist within the market. Addressing variability, labour and logistical challenges (what to do and when) are all key factors in greatly improving an orchard’s efficiency.

V-trellis systems can improve the amount of light a canopy can capture. This orchard utilises a bi-axis tree on a V-trellis. Once mature, this canopy will capture a very high amount of sunlight.

Preparing for technology uptake

There are various steps that you can take now to ensure that you can apply these technologies to your orchard and business in the future.

Start collecting and recording data on:

  • Weather (especially if you are quite a distance from the nearest Bureau of Meteorology weather station)
  • Full bloom dates
  • Harvest dates
  • Fruit size progression
  • Soil nutrition
  • Fertiliser applications (what was put on, how and when?)
  • Irrigation (how much was put on and when?)
  • Spray applications – particularly for any chemical thinning (rates, conditions, products)
  • Gross production
  • Packouts
  • Tree variability (might be as simple as saying 30 per cent of X Fuji block are off in 2017-18)

Consider how technology may fit into new orchard plantings:

  • Is it robot-ready? (considered to be thin, consistent and simple)
  • Could your irrigation system be adapted for variable rate application?
  • Have a plan and keep your eyes open for new ideas

Efficient tree and orchard design

Characteristics of an efficient orchard system:

  • High light interception
  • Good light distribution
  • Relatively high planting density
  • Simple canopies (enables some of the new technologies)

The common theme for all of the above is efficiency; maximise your outputs for your inputs.

The ‘efficient’ way of thinking should move beyond the tree and planting system; how will harvest be managed, how far do you have to drive to refill vats, what facilities might workers or future machines require? Will future regulatory requirements be able to be accommodated?

Industry at large

Technology and tree architecture are going to be major drivers towards efficiency within the future orchard. The other reality is that orchard size and shorter supply chains can provide huge gains in both of these categories.

The majority of fruit production will be coming from big players with large, simple and efficient orchard operations and supply chains. Smaller orchards (10-20ha) are likely to become variety specific with one to three varieties best suited to the area grown within maturity zones to spread peak labour demand

throughout the season. Bigger blocks, with simpler management practices are likely to become the norm.

Smaller growers who do not see themselves fitting into these systems may need to strongly consider becoming ‘professional growers’ feeding into larger suppliers’ systems or be faced with the challenge of finding highly specific niche markets in order to stay competitive; such as the agri-tainment sector highlighted earlier.

Looking back and looking forward

Telling some growers (many of who are still managing their orchards) that they would have more than doubled their yields per hectare and have a higher proportion under permanent netting thirty years ago was probably a laughable concept; both from an economic and technological perspective.

Ideas and the feasibility of technologies change rapidly and, with the advent of the new data revolution, the expectation for making near-impossible concepts a reality is fast approaching.

The majority of orchard blocks planted today are the orchards of the future. To ensure their longevity careful planning to future-proof them against the challenges posed by the future is required.

So, when you are planting a new block or variety don’t be afraid to think about future proofing it.

Think climate

  • What are the climate projections for my region?
  • Will I need overhead irrigation?
  • Do my current and future varieties fit into this system?

Irrigation

  • Is my system efficient?
  • Will I have enough water for what I’m doing?
  • Can I adapt it?

Varieties

  • Will it stand the test of time?
  • Do I have an exit strategy?

Tree architecture

  • Is the new design efficient?

Infrastructure

  • Do I need netting?
  • How much weight can my trellising structures hold? – it may pay to have it engineered

And finally, for new plantings, if you can go big and bold; let the economies of scale improve your efficiency.


Acknowledgement

Future Orchards® is a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Apple and Pear Fund. It is funded by Hort Innovation using the apple and pear levy and funds from the Australian Government, and is delivered by APAL and AgFirst.

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Future Orchards Machinery and mechanisation orchard design and density

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