Christo Strydom of specialist pear-packhouse Wolfpack and Buchuland production manager Henk Rossouw discuss two top-performing pear orchards. By Anna Mouton.
Buchuland lies just outside Ceres in the Warm Bokkeveld — an area that Strydom describes as Forelle heaven. Their best Forelle orchard supports this claim. Planted in 1999 at 4.5 x 1.5 metres on BP 1, it has yielded more than 75 tonnes per hectare on average with 75%–80% Class 1 pack-outs over recent years.
“But we should also give management credit,” says Strydom. “It’s easy to be successful with ten trees, but here they are dealing with 6.5 hectares of Forelle.” To put this in context, the total area of most Italian apple farms is 1–2 hectares.
Regular renewal promotes productivity in Forelle
The yields from this Forelle orchard have always been good but fruit size and quality declined over time. Rossouw deployed hard pruning to stimulate growth and increase the tree volume. Once satisfied with the tree’s scaffold, he focussed on managing the bearing units on the branches.
“I want three new shoots on each branch every year,” explains Rossouw. “And three old shoots have to go so that there is nothing older than four years on a branch.”
By continuously renewing the tree’s bearing structures, Rossouw has boosted yields and achieved an average fruit size of 165 grams. “The typical fruit size for Forelle is around 140–145 grams,” notes Strydom.
When it comes to Forelle, red colour development is crucial for orchard profitability, so fruit must receive adequate light. “My rule of thumb is that you correct a light problem immediately after harvest with a saw — you remove branches or strong shoots,” says Strydom. “Don’t leave it until the next season.”
He adds that many growers do summer pruning of shoots, which stimulates regrowth, increasing vigour at the expense of fruit production.
Rest-breaking sets the stage for effective thinning
Rossouw has found that a single rest-breaking treatment with mineral oil is highly effective and helps to synchronise flowering. Although some may argue that the Warm Bokkeveld provides sufficient winter chill for pears, by preventing protracted bloom, rest-breaking treatments facilitate subsequent management interventions.
The Forelle orchard contains Early Williams’ Bon Chrétien and Kieffer cross-pollinators, but gibberellin applications also contribute to a good fruit set. “Pollination isn’t critical for fruit set in Forelle,” says Strydom, “but cross-pollination gives you seeds, which promote the development of better fruit.”
Fruit are chemically thinned at a 10-millimetre size with a combination of 6-benzyladenine and 1-naphthylacetic acid. “What I like about chemical thinning in Forelle is that it removes the weaker fruit early, before they can easily be identified by eye,” comments Rossouw.
The chemical thinning is followed up later by manual thinning.
Strydom believes that it is this careful attention to management that produces consistent fruit yields and quality. “It’s also about the irrigation, the fertilisation, the tree manipulation. You can see how even this orchard is — there are no passengers here.”
High tonnages from Abate Fetel on quince
The second outstanding orchard at Buchuland is Abate Fetel at 4.5 x 1.5 metres on BA29. It has a five-year average yield of nearly 85 tonnes per hectare, with a record yield of 96 tonnes last year. “The pack-outs are almost always 90%,” says Rossouw. “And there has only been one year when average fruit weight dropped below 250 grams.”
Planted in 2006, the orchard has one row of Forelle for each row of Abate Fetel, with additional Flamingo trees in the mix.
“If you look at the market requirements for Abate Fetel, there’s no room for small fruit,” says Strydom. “And Abate is infamous for flowering profusely but setting unpredictably. So for the sake of fruit set, fruit shape, and fruit size, we decided to rather include too many than too few cross-pollinators.”
In Strydom’s experience, the quince BA29 rootstock also seems to encourage butternut-shaped fruit instead of banana-shaped fruit in Abate Fetel. The butternut-shaped fruit are both better-looking and heavier.
New rootstocks bring new challenges
One of the early lessons learnt was that Abate Fetel forms a weak graft union with BA29. Several trees broke in the first year, necessitating the installation of a trellis system.
Another problem is the lack of growth. So far, this orchard has performed brilliantly, and it looks ready to crop another 80 tonnes next season. But Rossouw is concerned about long-term productivity. “We struggle to get new growth inside the tree, so that it can bear on new wood, like the Forelle.”
Whereas trees on BP rootstocks respond to pruning by growing, he has found that these Abate Fetel on BA29 often fail to make new shoots where they have been cut. He is now pulling out all the stops to stimulate growth, starting with aggressive canopy management for maximum light distribution.
Rossouw is also focussing more on soil health. “We farmers know how to prune, but soil health is a whole new animal — I’m glad to see more research being done on this.”
They already allow more weeds in their orchards. Even though Rossouw finds long grass untidy, he admits that it greatly reduces the need for chemical control of red spider mites. A vegetated orchard floor is also cooler and increases humidity during heatwaves, which lessens sunburn.
Both Rossouw and Strydom believe that the benefits of more precocious rootstocks, like BA29, outweigh the drawbacks, and that they will find solutions for the challenges over time. For starters, they will in future prioritise tree development over fruit production in young orchards.
“I understand the economics, and that you need to come into bearing early, but not at the cost of tree volume,” stresses Strydom. “After all, what will make your bank manager happier? A few pears in years two or three, or a tree that will give you high tonnes forever?”
If we’re talking about consistent high tonnes, there’s little doubt that these two orchards at Buchuland will make any bank manager smile.
Image: The 2022 Abate Fetel harvest at Buchuland.
Supplied by Christo Strydom | Wolfpack.