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Winning orchardist launches into Rockit

Industry Best Practice

With a relatively small orchard, but a practical and smart approach to expansion; engagement in research trials; business diversification; enthusiasm for new varieties; and an open attitude to learning and sharing, it’s clear why South Australian orchardist Joel Brockhoff was chosen for the APAL 2015 Young Grower of the Year award.

Apples were first planted on Otherwood Orchards in the 1920s by Joel’s great grandfather, who was also a founding member of the Lenswood Apples Co-operative. Joel now manages the 13 hectares on Otherwood Orchards that are dedicated to horticulture, where he is growing apples, kiwifruit, avocados and citrus. But his excitement – and innovative streak – shows through most when he talks about the new orchard block that he is leasing from his neighbour.

Rockit-ing ahead

“Four years ago Dad and I took over a lease of the neighbouring property – it doubled our orchard area,” says Joel. “It was a mix of Jonathon, Granny Smith, Sundowner, Red Delicious, Fuji and Gala apples.” Joel and his father Peter have pushed out the Jonathons, Granny Smith and Sundowners and are replanting half of the block. The first of their new trees are moving into their third season. “We cut down all the Red Delicious and grafted them with Cripps Pink (sold domestically as Pink Lady),” says Joel.

Joel says Rockit has the appeal of being a managed volume the benefit of an export focus. Photo: Lenswood Cooperative.

Joel says Rockit™ has the appeal of being a managed volume the benefit of an export focus.
Photo: Lenswood Apples.

He explains that while Red Delicious are not a great variety to rework because they are prone to getting Trametes – a bark rot – it was a good short term measure because high-coloured Pink Lady apples have been more profitable to grow than Red Delicious. But the big move, and the one that excites Joel most, has come with the planting of the PremA96 variety (marketed as Rockit™). “I think club varieties are essential for us now,” says Joel. “We’re making a considerable commitment to Rockit that will see 20 per cent of our orchard planted to this variety. We are looking forward to having some excellent trees in the ground.

“As a club variety, Rockit has got that appeal of being a managed volume and we’ve got the benefit that Rockit has an export focus, which the other club varieties don’t necessarily have. Its marketing strategy has all been laid out and it makes us feel pretty confident that it’s going to be managed well, that there’s going to be demand in excess of the volume. It’s giving us optimism for the future. We’ve got, hopefully, a profitable orchard business based on varieties that don’t lose their value, like some of our commodity varieties have at this stage anyway.”

And Joel is also optimistic about the yields. “It’s a new apple for us, but we understand that more than 50 tonnes a hectare in New Zealand has been achieved, which is a realistic expectation for us,” Joel explains. “At 50 tonnes a hectare they will be profitable, but of course we hope for higher yields, especially with the structure and the tree volume we’re going to end up having I can’t see why it won’t be more than that.”

Laying out the future

Joel and his wife Kate Brockhoff with their two children in the orchard.

Joel and his wife Kate Brockhoff with their two children in the orchard.

Joel has planted his Rockit in a much tighter layout than some of his other pre-existing blocks. “We’ve got about 2,850 trees a hectare, with three and a half metre wide rows by one metre spacings.  It suits our terrain,” says Joel. “I feel comfortable with the way that the trees grow at that spacing, and it will allow us to manage the vigour to keep them productive. When we come to tie them down I think we’ll be tying them down, as other growers have referred to, as Fuji flat,” says Joel. “We’re not going to steeply tie them down to 45 degrees like a Pink Lady or Royal Gala, it’s going to be a flatter angle because the branches are going to hang pretty easily.” “This density suits us, it’s ideal for the use of platforms and a bit of mechanisation. It’s not ideal for robots, but it is going to be more efficient with platforms and that is going to be enough for us.” He adds that he wouldn’t mind having a play with some of the two dimensional systems because he sees the approach as really interesting.

Testing ground

Joel Brockhoff inspects the trial of young Rockit and Aztec Fuji trees he is conducting with Lenswood Cooperative.

Joel inspects the trial of young Rockit™ and Aztec Fuji trees he is conducting with Lenswood Apples.

In his new block, Joel, together with Paul James, Field Advisor at Lenswood Apples, has also established a trial of young Rockit and Aztec Fuji trees. Each is being managed differently throughout the first five years to determine which type of management results in the most productive trees. “We’re looking at a number of factors that will produce the best tree in the first season,” explains Joel. “Paul is looking at four or five different treatments or types of management. We will measure the growth rate and cumulative yield of each treatment to determine which one is the best way to manage the tree.” Joel says that he is a bit conservative and would prefer to get young trees established first before aiming for high yields. He notes that Rockit has quite a strong ‘basatonic’ growth habit meaning the top of the tree tends to terminate while the lower branches continue to grow.

“It’s a little bit early to say that one approach is better than another,” says Joel. “However, just looking at what we’ve got on some of the trees that were headed and the trees that had no pruning, they’re not spectacular. The trees that had their feathers removed, which were rodded, they’ve probably grown better than anything and they look good. I think that will be our approach this year rather than heading them. Paul’s figures support this.”

With the establishment of the new block, Joel also installed drip irrigation, which has proven a big bonus. “I think we probably never realised how much the soil dries out,” says Joel. “With sprinklers, the volume of water needed is so much greater to keep that relatively narrow strip damp where the roots are. “Irrigation plays such a very big role in tree growth especially for the young trees, so being able to get them in moist soil and keep the soil moist through the whole season, is a big advantage.” He’s also seen the advantage of netting, especially in the higher density orchards where the cost of the netting is justified by the value of the crop produced in a given area. “The netting system we will use is based on the European gable system that breaks apart under load (hail) and the trellis posts double as netting support,” says Joel. For Joel there are three drivers for netting: 1) having the right structure to support the tree; 2) bird protection – Rainbow Lorikeets are a big problem for South Australian orchardists; and 3) environmental protection – particularly to reduce heat and sunburn. “So it’s environmental netting really and I haven’t even mentioned hail,” says Joel. “But there will be a year when we’re very thankful we’ve got it for that reason too.”

Diversification

Joel has diversified his business to include a roadside stall – Apple Fields Orchards Shop – and a stall at the Adelaide Farmers' Market every Sunday. Photo: Susie Green.

Joel has diversified his business to include a roadside stall – Apple Fields Orchards Shop – and a stall at the Adelaide Farmers’ Market every Sunday. Photo: Susie Green.

Joel’s enthusiasm for his new block is tempered by his critical assessment and pragmatism in managing the other fruit trees that he looks after. “Around 30 years ago there was a bit of a push into kiwifruit, avocados and citrus,” says Joel. “All of that diversification has been beneficial at times and detrimental at times. It probably meant that the apple growing was never really as focused as it could have been.” He recognises that investing sooner in a bigger orchard with more Cripps Pink and and its derived variety Rosy Glow (both sold domestically as Pink Lady) could have been an advantage. But he has embraced the diversity of the orchard and put it to his advantage, by operating both a roadside stall called Apple Fields Orchard Shop in Balhannah and a stall at the Adelaide Showgrounds Farmers’ Market. “Having a range of produce has made going to the Farmers’ Market a lot more useful,” says Joel. He explains that having more than just apples means they have more to offer customers to bring them back. And they’re selling the fruit at retail prices, which helps make it worthwhile. “We have to give up our Sundays, but Dad and I alternate each week, so we get every second Sunday off,” says Joel.  “We’ve also got the roadside stall that helps us to sell a bit more fruit at a higher price and it’s a diversification to our business.”

Out and about

Joel accepting the APAL 2015 Young Grower of the Year award at the National Horticulture Convention.

Joel accepting the APAL 2015 Young Grower of the Year award at the National Horticulture Convention.

Since winning the APAL Young Grower of the Year award, Joel has attended the Emerging Leaders program with APAL and Marcus Oldham College in Victoria. While he acknowledges the formal part of the course was helpful, particularly in drawing his attention to how he communicates and different strategies for communicating effectively, he thinks that getting to know other people from the industry was the biggest benefit. “It’s been really good to talk to people that I probably would never have had the opportunity to talk to in the past,” says Joel. But prior to this Joel was already active in the industry and connecting with other growers. In 2007, he went to Italy on a one-way exchange program supported by APAL where he spent a month working with an orcharding family in the Vinschgau Valley near Bolzano in the South Tyrol region. He says that trip was a major turning point for him. “My time in Italy became a pivotal moment for me because it helped me form a vision for what was possible at home,” Joel explains. “It gave me insights into different approaches, some of which I have adopted, and it kept me enthused about the industry. It was also a lot of fun.” Joel also credits the Future Orchards program for contributing to making a tangible difference to his approach to orchard management. But perhaps most importantly, Joel acknowledges his family’s support. “I would also like to thank my dad for his openness to modernise and embrace new ideas and my wife Kate for her support,” Joel says.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Joel and Kate Brockhoff for welcoming APAL to Otherwood Orchards and to Susie Green for providing additional photos.

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