The birth of the Orchard of the Future programme. By Glenneis Kriel and Wiehann Steyn.
Hortgro Science launched the Orchard of the Future programme in 2010 to stimulate discussion and spark innovation in the apple industry. Ten years later, Fresh Quarterly takes a look back, and finds out who made it happen.
In 2008, the world suffered as financial markets crashed. In the United States, Barack Obama was elected to his first term, while, in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki resigned. Meanwhile, at Hortgro, Hugh Campbell, general manager of Hortgro Technical, was focussed on the future of the South African pome-fruit industry.
Campbell remembers trying to find ways to galvanise industry research in South Africa: “I was looking for a road map that could help direct future production research, and ensure its relevance to, and alignment with, the actual needs of growers.”
Subsequently, a group of technical advisers got together to discuss the need for a technological step-up. They felt that the pace of innovation in the South African apple industry had slackened following deregulation, and that there was a risk of falling behind our competitors.
“They wanted to get something going relating to the future, especially after Pieter de Wet of Môreson in Vyeboom planted a fairly new, and slightly radical, concept orchard,” recalls Campbell.
Several other countries had already started down the road of establishing trial orchards to explore the concept of the future orchard. Australia had the Future Orchards Programme. The United Kingdom had the Sainsbury concept pear-orchard at the East Malling Research Station, which Campbell visited in 2009.
Campbell arranged a workshop in September 2009, attended by De Wet; Pierre du Plooy, then pome-fruit technical adviser at Dutoit Agri; Dr Mias Pretorius and Graeme Krige, technical advisers at Two-a-Day; Dr Nigel Cook, horticultural consultant; and Matthew Addison, crop-protection programme manager at Hortgro Science.
“The meeting provided an opportunity to get these individuals together, and to create a vision of what South African apple orchards should look like in the future,” says Campbell.
At the time of the workshop, the status quo was the production of relatively high yields of mediocre fruit on vigorous rootstocks that took a long time to become productive after planting. The industry average was that only about 40% of fruit harvested was of export quality, and only 30% was sold on the local market. The remaining 30% was juiced. This was simply not good enough.
The group rejected this — they believed that it had to be possible to get into production sooner, and to improve the quality of fruit. “If we needed to attain earlier yields of better quality, then we had to move to high-density plantings on precocious dwarfing rootstocks, even if everyone thought it would not work,” says Campbell. “And if sunburn made some cultivars like Granny Smith unprofitable, then we had to investigate the use of nets.”
To address the various challenges and risks facing the industry, the group identified eight targets that would increase orchard profitability. These related mostly to production, and included yield, precocity, and fruit quality.
The group’s action plan was to create the ideal scenario of where the industry should be in terms of orchard performance, and to identify what needed to be done to get there. “Once this vision of what our orchards should look like was created, it could be demonstrated to growers,” explains Campbell.
“It also created a framework on which we could hang our research, so we could present it to funders as a picture of where we want to be, and what we needed to get there. To this day, this has remained one of the key drivers of the production research programme.”
Dreaming up orchards of the future is one thing, but someone had to take the first step in making the vision a reality. In early 2010, the Orchard of the Future concept was presented to the Fruitgro Science Board — now the Hortgro Science Advisory Council. Proposals were included from Two-a-Day; Techways, now Fruitways; Ceres Fruit Growers; and Môreson Trust.
The board supported the proposal in principle, and recommended that Campbell and board member, Stephen Rabe of Fruitways, visit Australia’s Future Orchards Programme during October 2010. Rabe was so inspired that he phoned his nurseryman from an Australian orchard, to order “all the M.9 trees you can lay your hands on.”
At the time, it was believed that the highly precocious, dwarfing M.9 rootstock, although the standard for modern high-density plantings around the world, could not succeed under local conditions. Rabe went against the conventional wisdom to plant the Orchard of the Future at Graymead in Vyeboom on M.9.
“This was the level of buy-in, support, and faith that the programme required. That it came from a member of the board was a key factor in getting it off the ground,” says Campbell. By April 2011, in addition to Graymead, plans for four Orchards of the Future had been approved.
The Dutoit Agri Orchard of the Future was established in 2010 at Paardekloof in the Witzenberg valley. The cultivar Rosy Glow was planted on MM.109 rootstocks with M.9 interstems, at high density. An adjacent conventional Rosy Glow orchard on MM.109 served for comparison.
Two-a-Day’s Orchard of the Future was planted in 2012 at Oak Valley Estate in Grabouw. The aim was to improve the profitability of Granny Smith by planting on the new, semi-dwarfing G.222 rootstock under nets.
ZZ2 joined the programme in 2015 with a Fuji orchard at Bokveldskloof in the Koue Bokkeveld. Their orchard was planted in 2013 at high and ultra-high density, on semi-vigorous M.7 and dwarfing M.9 rootstocks.
Ceres Fruit Growers could unfortunately not obtain trees of the right quality and withdrew from the programme – understandably so, when considering that good plant material quality is a prerequisite for the success of the orchard of the future. Môreson also decided not to become involved in the programme.
The four Orchards of the Future — Graymead, Paardekloof, Oak Valley, and Bokveldskloof — went on to become the most talked-about and visited orchards in the South African apple industry over the ensuing decade. They’ve been at the forefront of an innovation revolution in the industry, and the discussions and debates about, and in, these orchards have inspired some of the most relevant research in the crop-production programme.
Image by Carmé Naudé | Hortgro.