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Australian growers visit apple industry in Washington

In August 2017, APAL took a group of 28 Australian apple and pear growers on a tour of apple and pear production in Washington State in the USA. For almost two weeks the tour was packed with activities as participants visited over 25 different sites meeting well over 30 growers, researchers and consultants, as APAL explains:  

Many APAL trips have been run in Washington State in previous years and after travelling there it is clear why we Aussies keep being drawn there. For a lot of the group this was their first visit and what was most striking was that the growers we visited all have a notion for science and experimentation as a means to continuously fine tune their orchards to drive productivity and improve quality. 

On top of this, it was clear that the growers there have a major sense of pride and satisfaction in their work. It was a great privilege to have had the opportunity to meet and learn from them and learn about their incredible industry.

Worldwide, apple and pear growers are great sharers of information and travel is a significant means for them to get inspired and be motivated by their peers abroad and implement changes in their own orchard. This tour focused on examining how orchard production could be positioned to drive higher yields and fruit quality in light of increasing labour pressures and the potential for robotic harvesting in the future. Washington State was the ideal backdrop to explore solutions to challenges faced by Australia’s apple industry because their industry is so similar.

Over the two-week period we visited commercial orchards, research orchards, experimental orchards, nurseries, pack-sheds as well as a merchandise retail store and machinery dealerships.

Orchard design at Auvil Fruit Company
Many participants said the best lessons from the tour were about orchard systems. In particular, the visit to Auvil Fruit Company’s Vantage Ranch gave many insights on how to set up and manage two dimensional (2D) systems to give consistent tonnage and high-quality pack-outs.

The Auvil Fruit Company provides probably the best examples of the 2D system in the world and while we were there, the President of Orchard Management Del Feigal showed us how they deliver this system with such precision. He explained that by paying attention to detail and using the many tools at their disposal they get the consistency that they require. 

Practices he mentioned included planting, rootstock selection, tree training, variable and precision irrigation management, fertiliser management, girdling, blossom thinning, root pruning and tree training, they also consider the many environmental factors such as high wind, heat, hail and frost.

To achieve such a high-level system a remarkable level of detailed information is needed and the payoff aims to drive revenue through high productivity and pack-outs. In just one example we saw that a 13-foot tall eight-wire 2D ‘V’ system had achieved 165 tonnes per hectare of high quality Cripps Pink the previous season. 

This yield may have been nearly repeated the following season if it wasn’t for some overly aggressive leaf ripping in the lower three wires that also removed the next year’s buds where the fruit was a bit light on. As a result, the expected yield for that block this 2017 season is 120 tonnes per hectare.

Nearby we also viewed a pedestrian version on a six-foot-six tall, four-wire 2D ‘V’ which will achieve 100 tonnes per acre by fifth leaf, as their other systems had already done. Pedestrian orchards are designed so that all the work can be done from the ground, which removes the need for ladders and platforms. For Del, this pedestrian system came about as a response to their proprietary apple Aurora which tends to not want to grow tall, so this system was implemented to accommodate the growth habit. 

Since then, it was explained that the pedestrian orchard has been as productive as the normal systems but the production costs are less. In a competitive labour market more workers prefer the pedestrian system which in turn increases reliability of labour supply.

Labour management at Stemilt Growers
One major challenge for Washington State is the increasing costs of labour combined with the declining availability of labour. Whether it’s a 2D system or not, growers must commit to designing simple, narrow, productive (SNAP) canopies that achieve high early yields and that can handle new technologies such as platforms and, ultimately, robotic harvesters.

Dale Goldy of Stemilt Growers, a recent guest at Future Orchards, has chosen for now to not do 2D systems but showed the group their recently planted tall spindle system at their Capstone Ranch where there was also a focus on consistency. The site had at least a 60 years of cropping previously and, from grid soil samples, Dale saw major variations in soil pH, potassium and phosphorus. They fixed this using variable rate technology to fertilise and ameliorate the soil prior to planting to apples for greater consistency.

As Dale explained, “this has become our signature way of planting.  [Developing] the technical expertise of the staff to know what’s expected of all the little details has probably been a six-year process.”

It was common throughout the tour that many considered consistency tree-to-tree as a performance indicator for their systems. With so much invested over such large areas these systems must have consistency because consistency is vital for driving higher yields per hectare, increasing productivity and for delivering consistency of product.

Future thinking and practical ideas for now
While the orchard systems shown captured the imagination of many of our growers for their future planning, they also picked up many practical ideas to implement immediately. For example, to avoid heat stress many Washington growers use misters/foggers for overhead cooling rather than the rotating sprinklers. These misters could be used effectively in Australia provided appropriate consideration is given to the spacing and the environmental conditions such as wind direction. Often overhead cooling systems require quantities of water that growers either don’t have or find that where it is used it results in excessive saturation of soils.

In one example the standard rotating sprinklers required 326 L/ha/minute of water whereas the misters required 84 L/ha/minute. Both systems operated on a program of 20 minutes ‘on’ and 40 minutes ‘off’ and were activated in temperatures above 30oC. These systems were also effective when used in the night to lower night-time temperatures and improve colour development.

Smart ways to increase profits
The Washington State apple industry is currently experiencing significant investment into new and improved orchards, pack-sheds and proprietary varieties. In recent years the major challenges is the significant changes to the minimum wage rate. For example, in 2016 it was $9.50 per hour and in 2017 it has risen to $11 per hour. By 2020 the minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $13.50 which is a 42 percent increase from the 2016 level. There is also major investment into extra housing to secure more labour out of the country’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program.

To address this, Washington growers are looking at every strategy they can to increase their revenue through a combination of increasing yields, improving pack-out and using more high-value proprietary varieties.

Growers are also switching to, or already into, organics to meet very strong market trends. In the USA, it takes three years to transition an orchard from conventional to organic production. A Washington State University economic study comparing organics to conventional showed that the organics produced eight per cent less yield, had 12 per cent higher costs and generated a 42 per cent higher price. Over the past five years in the US, the retail demand for organics has risen 51 per cent and the price has also gone up 10 per cent which makes it an attractive opportunity for growers who can meet the demand and achieve higher returns.

In the next few weeks a more detailed report of the tour will be available to growers on request.  Other topics from the tour not mentioned in this article included use of plant growth regulators, varieties, rootstocks, grafting, orchard renewal, trellis engineering, nurseries, blossom thinning, automated distribution, platforms, mechanisation, spraying systems, mechanical weeding/pruning/thinning, and crop loading. While apples were the focus of this trip we also visited some stone fruit and cherry blocks.

For more information: apal.org.au

Publication date: 10/9/2017


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