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202103 Fresh Quarterly Issue 12 03 Raising The Bar
Issue TwelveMarch 2021

Raising the bar

What comes next for the Orchard of the Future? By Glenneis Kriel and Wiehann Steyn.

The Orchard of the Future programme was considered revolutionary when it was launched in 2010, but innovations associated with the participating orchards have since become widely adopted. It’s time for a fresh take on the future, explains Prof. Wiehann Steyn, general manager at Hortgro Science. “For the South African industry to remain competitive, we need to continuously look at new ways of doing things.”

A broader scope

“We thought that the M.9 rootstock could not work under local conditions, but phase 1 put that argument to rest,” says Steyn. “Perhaps phase 2 can do the same for some of the difficult-to-grow, but potentially very lucrative, new cultivars.”

Rootstock choice will remain an inseparable part of the programme. “An orchard planted on a new rootstock is not necessarily an Orchard of the Future, but comparative plantings using a standard rootstock compared to the best choice rootstock for a certain situation could be interesting,” says Steyn.

According to Steyn, a key lesson from phase 1 has been the value of comparative data. He describes the Paardekloof Orchard of the Future, where the net-covered and open sections of the Orchard of the Future could be compared to an adjacent conventional orchard that was planted at the same time.

“For example, planting a new plum Orchard of the Future on the potentially best rootstock for the particular site will generate considerable info, but even more so if part of the orchard is planted with the conventional rootstock that would generally be used,” explains Steyn. “We could compare results, and growers could compare the performance with their own eyes.”

Phase 1 only included apple orchards in the Koue Bokkeveld and Grabouw. “With the second round, we would like to include pears and stone fruit, and we’re keen to have an Orchard of the Future in all the major production areas. The orchard also does not necessarily have to be a new planting,” says Steyn.

Refining the basics

“Over the past few decades, we’ve seen considerable increases in yields, but the potential for further gains might be diminishing,” says Steyn. He points to the work of Dr Stuart Tustin in New Zealand, who is attempting to push production above 160 tonnes per hectare by using a two-dimensional upright fruiting system to improve light interception.

In contrast, there is still plenty of scope for the improvement of fruit quality, as much of South African pome and stone fruit are not export grade.

Based on 2016 figures, Steyn calculated that the apple industry could earn an additional R1.7 billion by improving the quality of 10% of its third-grade fruit to export grade.

Phase 1 of the Orchard of the Future showed the ability of high-density plantings on dwarfing rootstocks to increase fruit quality, but establishment costs are high. “One way to decrease the investment cost while maintaining the benefits of a smaller canopy, is to employ multi-leader systems like the Italian Guyot, which we might include in the future programme,” says Steyn.

The programme will also continue to focus on overcoming the major industry risks that have been identified by Hortgro Science — see sidebar. These include climate change, and the related challenge of diminishing water supplies and quality.

There will be a greater emphasis on crop protection, due to the potentially devastating impact of phytosanitary and biosecurity risks, as well as to increasing market resistance to chemical use. Sustainable orchard floor management might therefore become an important component of phase 2.

Keeping the momentum

Hortgro Science are eager to start the new phase as soon as possible, and appointed Marno van der Westhuizen in May 2020 as the research implementation manager. Van der Westhuizen will also be responsible for the Orchard of the Future programme.

“We have seen that you need someone to drive the programme, and maintain momentum,” explains Steyn. He stresses the importance of keen collaborators, who are curious, and have a vested interest in the particular Orchard of the Future in which they are involved.

Stephen Rabe, Hortgro Science advisory council chair, says one of the biggest contributors to the success of the first phase, was that producers wanted to run with it. Firstly, because growers related to the programme and, secondly, because it was pioneered by industry champions that were passionate.

“Behind each of these programmes there was a least one highly passionate person to drive it. The drivers also made other people want to become part of the process,” says Rabe.

Steyn notes that, similar to phase 1, new Orchards of the Future will be identified through big grower groups, technical advisers, and, in the case of stone fruit, possibly exporters with technical teams.

“Many big grower groups already have their own Orchard of the Future programmes, and Hortgro will aim to link in with these initiatives,” says Steyn. “That way, the lessons of these initiatives will be shared more broadly, to the benefit of the South African industry.”

Bonus: Major risks to the pome- and stone-fruit industries identified by Hortgro Science.

  • Water: reduced availability and quality.
  • Climate change: rising temperatures, reduced rainfall, and more frequent extreme weather events.
  • Plant material: poor quality and health.
  • Biosecurity: risks to producers of invasive pests and diseases.
  • Phytosanitary: risk to markets of pests and diseases. Examples include fruit fly and false codling moth.
  • Loss of chemical controls: fewer pesticides, herbicides, nematicides, and fungicides available to growers.

Image: The Orchard of the Future at Paardekloof.

Supplied by Carmé Naudé | Hortgro.

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