Fifteen years of the Future Orchards project. By Anna Mouton.
The Future Orchards project was launched in 2006 to help Australian apple and pear growers improve orchard productivity and fruit quality. Fifteen years on, Fresh Quarterly spoke to apple grower Kevin Sanders about the impact of the project. Sanders sits on the board of APAL, the national representative body for the Australian apple and pear industry and owner of the Pink Lady brand in more than a hundred countries.
Challenging the status quo
The Australian apple orchard of 2006 would be familiar to most South African growers: enormous trees on vigorous rootstocks producing modest harvests of mediocre fruit — and that only with a lot of effort from the grower. Extensive tours through Europe had convinced Sanders that there was a better way to farm.
“It became obvious to me that, from the sands of southern France and Spain to the wonderful country of the South Tyrol, the Europeans used one rootstock — M.9,” recalls Sanders. “That’s as big a range of growing conditions as you’d find in Australia.”
Sanders believed that Australians needed to embrace uniform trees and high-density plantings. “It was about moving them from 240 trees per hectare, to what’s current now, which is 4 000–4 500 trees per hectare. We’ve also moved away from central-leader to multileader trees. On our own farm, we’re at 9 500 leaders per hectare.”
The Future Orchards project aimed to show growers what was possible, and to provide the knowledge necessary to make a change. Top experts were brought in from all over the world to work with local consultants and growers. “Because everyone’s read about these experts in magazines, growers came to have a look.”
Innovative orchards were identified in different areas and brought into the project. Field days were organised to give growers the opportunity to visit these orchards. Sanders stresses the importance of exposing people to success in their local area and under familiar environmental conditions.
“We spent the first five years trying to convince growers. The next five years they got into it. And now some of my conservative friends are at the same kind of plantings that we are. The uptake has been remarkable.”
Rules for pruning
Once growers had seen the benefits of changing their planting systems, it became possible to focus on fruit quality. “It’s about how many tonnes you get in Class I,” says Sanders, “not about how many tonnes you pick.”
Sanders explains that consistent fruit quality was hard to achieve on the old trees. “The bigger the tree, the more opportunity for extremely small fruit at the bottom, and really nice fruit at the top. It’s all about light interception and distribution.”
Older trees on vigorous rootstocks can be very productive, but often at the expense of fruit quality. One reason is that big trees with complicated canopies are difficult to prune. “A vase-shaped tree or an old central-leader tree requires a lot of thought, and good knowledge on pruning,” says Sanders.
He contrasts this with the European approach of keeping the tree simple. “You never cut into a growing length. You either cut it off or you leave it alone.”
Labour in Australia is expensive. Hourly rates are around eight times those paid in South Africa. Australian growers also face chronic labour shortages, and often rely on backpackers and other migrant labourers, who may speak little or no English.
The system needs to be simple enough that pruning can be taught in fifteen minutes, says Sanders. And there should be no more than three rules: remove a branch if it’s too thick, too long, or too upright. Everything else, leave it on the tree.
Sanders compares pruning instruction to coaching football. “Good coaches only teach the players three things. Because — and I’m not knocking footballers — you can’t tell them too much or they get confused. It’s the same with labour.”
Further into the future
The Future Orchards project has been a resounding success. The national average for Australian apple production per hectare has nearly doubled, and the better growers are achieving Class 1 pack-outs of 70%–80%. The top growers are seeing 90%.
Sanders cites personal experience on his own farm. “We’ve had the same size farm for twenty years, and we’ve tripled production off that farm in that twenty years.”
Future Orchards has been about continuous improvement in all areas of apple production. “As you get better at one aspect, you move on to the next,” says Sanders. “It’s also about varietal influence on your decision-making. New varieties are so different to the ones that we’ve had in the past and they require some different thoughts.”
Besides organising field days and providing information, the project includes an online benchmarking database. Growers can input their own data and see how it compares to the database as a whole. Sanders regrets that participation hasn’t been as good as hoped. “People have to put in their own numbers, and here in Australia, growers don’t know a lot about their own farm.”
Another aspect of Future Orchards is the Orchard Business Analysis, which collects physical and financial data from representative orchards across Australia. The resulting snapshot of the industry reviews production trends and allows growers a further benchmarking opportunity.
“There are leaders in every country,” says Sanders. “Those guys are going somewhere else, and the others keep looking over the fence, and seeing, this is different. Their neighbour’s previous orchard might have looked exactly like their own, but this one looks nothing like it.”
The Future Orchards project was funded by HortInnovation. HortInnovation in turn is funded by industry levies. The project was delivered by APAL, the national representative body for the Australian apple and pear industry. Read more on the Future Orchards website or visit the Future Orchards library for an impressive collection of resources on apple and pear production.
Image: An apple orchard in the Yarra Valley, Australia.
Supplied by Wiehann Steyn | Hortgro