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202209 Fresh Quarterly Issue 18 10 Willie Kotze
Issue EighteenSeptember 2022

Fruit quality underpins profits

Tonnes are not enough — growers must focus on boosting Class 1 pack-outs. By Anna Mouton.

Technical adviser Willie Kotze of Dutoit Agri thinks that apple producers are leaving money on the table by not optimising fruit quality. He believes that growers can make strategic improvements to increase their returns.

Kotze related how he has been disappointed by the difference in Class 1 pack-outs in the pack house compared to on the tree. This has motivated him to identify and correct problems that impact fruit quality. He started by explaining the importance of planning and execution of harvesting.

“Once you start harvesting apples, if you get behind, you fall behind,” said Kotze. “There’s no way of catching up.”

The biggest risk of falling behind is that growers try to increase the picking rate. “With that comes increased picker defects — stem pulls, fruit drop, shoulder injuries, and lots of bruising,” cautioned Kotze. The likelihood of picking more mature fruit also rises. And delays in harvesting any one cultivar inevitably spill over to affect the following cultivars.

This is why Kotze considers accurate yield estimates to be crucial. “It’s good if you have an orchard where you harvest 180 tonnes as opposed to 120 tonnes per hectare,” he said, “but it’s even better if you have planned for that.”

Kotze shared a chart showing the correlation between yield and income in Golden Delicious orchards. He highlighted several orchards that all produced 120–140 tonnes per hectare — but their incomes differed by nearly R300 000 per hectare. Fruit quality is responsible for most of the disparity.

Kotze emphasised that getting the colour right is not enough. Fruit quality is often impacted by handling on the very last day in the orchard. Perfectly good fruit ends up as Class 3 due to damage such as bruising and stem punctures.

“In the past few seasons, we’ve looked at stem clipping as a way of managing the fruit in the last process of handling,” said Kotze.

Fast-forward profitable orchards

Dutoit Agri divides orchards into five categories based on their economic performance. Kotze explained this using an example of orchards from one of their divisions in which the best orchards — the blue chips — accounted for 60% of the hectares but 70% of yields and a stunning 111% of profits. Green orchards accounted for about 4% of profits.

How is 111% possible? Because the blue-chip orchards compensate for the losses made by unprofitable orchards classed as yellow, orange, and red. Yellow and orange orchards cover their variable production costs whereas red orchards do not cover production costs.

Yellow and orange orchards have the potential to turn a profit if growers can identify and rectify the underlying problems. Red orchards should be pulled out.

“It’s usually quite easy to identify and rectify a massive culling factor,” said Kotze. “It’s either sunburn or sometimes it’s poor colour.” Protective nets and reflective mulch can do wonders to shrink these losses. But Kotze warned against trying these technologies in orchards where the basic canopy structure is incorrect.

“Everyone is going into winter now, so it’s easy to see where you can start removing branches,” commented Kotze. “In 90% of the orchards where we still see fruit hanging, I wonder why we didn’t take out the branches last year.” Pruning is definitely required when a canopy is so dense that the pickers miss fruit.

Winter pruning should aim to improve light penetration and distribution in the tree by removing excess branches, especially branches that shade other branches.

Kotze shared the results of trials on reflective mulch used in a Kanzi — cultivar Nicoter — orchard followed by a Rosy Glow orchard in the same season. The reflective mulch increased the income for the two orchards by nearly R120 000 per hectare compared to a control without reflective mulch. Keep in mind that reflective mulch should not be the priority in orchards suffering severe sunburn — fix the sunburn first.

Coming back to his colour classification of orchards, Kotze pointed out that production costs for the loss-making 14 hectares of red orchards in his example were about R3 million per year. Pulling out the 14 hectares would make that money available to buy draped nets and reflective mulch for 15 hectares. The increased profits from applying these technologies to other orchards is an estimated R2.4 million per year.

“It’s expensive to buy draped nets and reflective mulch,” said Kotze, “but you can see that it has a fast turnaround time.”

Investing in fruit quality brings returns

Harvesting can often be condensed to one or two picks when draped nets and reflective mulch are applied to the right trees. Good light distribution through open canopies promotes uniform flowering as well as uniform fruit development.

“We had reflective mulch in Rosy Glow orchards and the outcome was quite clear in terms of Class 1 pack-outs,” said Kotze. Class 1 pack-outs were 72% with reflective mulch versus 23% in the control. The control had delayed colour development — more than 80% of the fruit was harvested at the third pick, compared to less than 50% in the reflective-mulch treatment.

Ultimately, once the canopy of an orchard has filled, the profitability of that orchard will only change if fruit quality changes. Kotze presented the outputs of a financial model of the net and cumulative cash flow for new plantings of Rosy Glow. In theory, a high-density orchard with protective nets and reflective mulch is the most expensive to establish, but also the most profitable over 20 years.

“If you plant high-density on a very expensive system, and you don’t get a good return because of low pack-outs, and you don’t address your biggest culling factors, you might be worse off than planting a conventional orchard,” said Kotze.

The cost of orchard establishment has more than doubled in the last few years, according to Kotze. Maximising the number of fruit that ends up in an export carton is the only way to keep apple farming profitable.

Read more about financial modelling by Dutoit Agri in the Fresh Quarterly article on the Orchard of the Future at Paardekloof.

Image: Willie Kotze, Dutoit Agri. Supplied by Echo Media.

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