What was achieved during the first phase? By Glenneis Kriel and Wiehann Steyn.
The Orchard of the Future programme aimed to future-proof the apple industry; to facilitate learning at different levels; to demonstrate new technologies; to get researchers into orchards; and to benchmark orchard data. Prof. Wiehann Steyn, general manager at Hortgro Science, reflects on whether the programme achieved these objectives.
Future-proofing the apple industry
Developing the four Orchards of the Future has sharpened industry focus on future needs. This has been key to setting the research agenda for the crop-production programme at Hortgro Science. “Any crop-production research programme currently undertaken can be motivated to a grower based on where it fits in with our vision of the orchard of the future, and on the risks it’s trying to mitigate,” says Steyn.
For example, conventional wisdom among South African growers used to be that dwarfing rootstocks would never work in our climate. Growers reasoned that such rootstocks would increase the susceptibility to drought stress and sunburn. But the Orchards of the Future, and subsequent research, showed these concerns to be unfounded.
Instead, the adoption of dwarfing rootstocks and high-density plantings hold the promise of earlier financial returns, greater orchard efficiency, and improved fruit quality. While it is true that fruit on trees with smaller canopies may be more exposed to sunburn, the risk can be controlled by erecting shade-nets.
Learning at different levels
“The Orchards of the Future were huge departures from the traditional way growers had been planting and farming apples. Hence, the learning curve for the teams that managed each of the orchards was always going to be pretty steep,” comments Steyn.
Much was learnt — through trial and error — about the management of high-density plantings on dwarfing rootstocks in terms of irrigation, tree training, shade-nets, and crop protection.
The exchange of knowledge was vital to the programme. Observations and insights were freely shared and rigorously discussed within the Orchard of the Future forum, which consisted of the management team of each Orchard of the Future, representatives of Hortgro Science, and technical advisers.
According to Steyn, this cross-pollination of ideas within the forum was one of the most positive outcomes of the programme. The lessons learnt were widely disseminated to the industry, including through field days, popular articles, YouTube videos, symposium presentations, and an Orchard of the Future panel discussion.
Steyn emphasises the importance of the planning phase of the individual orchards, and of the first few years after establishment, when participating groups continuously adapted and fine-tuned their new plantings based on their experiences.
However, some critical lessons only emerged at the end of the programme, with the analysis of the final results of each Orchard of the Future, and as the financial data for the trial orchards were calculated, summarised, and compared to those for conventional orchards.
“In the end, it’s all about the bottom line. As is evident from the financial data of each Orchard of the Future, more intensive, high-density farming does make financial sense,” says Steyn, “but there are some caveats.”
For high-density orchards to succeed, starting with good quality plant material is essential. And to justify the greater establishment cost, the high-density orchard has to crop earlier and produce better fruit quality than a conventional orchard.
Demonstrating new technologies
The Orchards of the Future were not intended as show orchards, or to be super-profitable. Instead, they were demonstration orchards, where producers experimented — sometimes with success and sometimes not.
Growers and technical consultants visited the orchards during field days, when they could gain first-hand exposure to the lessons learnt. Many were inspired to plant their own orchards of the future. “We may have had only four official Orchards of the Future, but these orchards gave rise to many more innovative plantings, and a general increase in the appetite for doing things differently,” says Steyn.
For instance, in December 2019, when a group of technical advisers visited the Langkloof, which had no official Orchard of the Future, members were shown several highly innovative orchards that could all qualify as orchards of the future. “We would like to believe that the Orchard of the Future programme planted the seed for the establishment of orchards such as these,” reflects Steyn.
Getting researchers into the orchard
Prior to the Orchard of the Future programme, there was a perception that researchers were becoming removed from the orchard. Steyn explains that fewer researchers were interested in working on pruning and simple management practices, because of difficulties in publishing their results in renowned journals.
“The intention was for the Orchard of the Future programme to pull researchers back into the orchard, which was achieved with a programme initiated at the Paardekloof orchard, where the open and netted sections of the orchard could be compared in terms of water use,” says Steyn.
In general, the trial orchards did not lend themselves to controlled experimentation, but the programme has helped inform research priorities. It has also provided the opportunity for growers and researchers to collaborate and communicate.
As such, the Orchard of the Future has increased the actual and perceived relevance of crop-production research. “Researchers know what research is required, and why, while growers know why certain research is needed, and how it may stand to benefit industry,” says Steyn.
Benchmarking orchard data
Benchmarking orchard data was the one objective where the programme failed. Steyn explains that programme participants found the task of data collection overwhelming.
“Measuring in detail all the input that goes into an orchard is a heck of a job. Our initial efforts over-ambitiously consisted of an Excel document developed with the help of an agricultural economist, covering a number of spreadsheets that the participants had to complete.”
From the start of the programme, the consensus was that the final measure of the success of an orchard would be its financial sustainability, so crunching the numbers mattered.
Luckily, Linde du Toit and the team at Dutoit Agri had developed a financial model based on their own experiences, including of their Orchard of the Future. “It re-emphasised that the most important numbers in terms of profitability were income and establishment costs,” affirms Steyn, “with income determined by the volume and quality of the crop.”
Image: Growers attend a field day at the Oak Valley Orchard of the Future.
Supplied by Carmé Naudé | Hortgro.