Fireproofing and automating are key

Batlow apple growers are modernizing orchards

As the owner of Ardrossan Orchards, Batlow apple grower Ian Cathels has invested in mobile firefighting equipment and installed new water tanks to increase his capacity in the event of another bushfire. He has also replanted apple trees further from surrounding forests and regularly clears grass and debris from nearby roadsides.

Cathels bore the brunt of the 2020 summer bushfires. "It's made us evaluate quite hard and how we look at an emergency in the future," he said. "We've got a large asset here that has taken years to develop. Hopefully we never get a fire like that again, but next time we'll be better prepared," he said.

In January 2020, the Dunns Road bushfire burnt over 330,000 hectares of pine forests, orchards and grazing country around Batlow in the New South Wales Snowy Mountains. Also, it destroyed some twenty homes and damaged hundreds more.

Cathels saw the fire destroying several buildings and killing 900 head of livestock.  Estimating around 20,000 of his apple trees were affected, he said the worst part was the years of lost fruit production. "It's probably put us, like, 10 years behind where we would like to be," he told abc.net.au.

With kind weather and cool mornings, this year's bumper harvest is a vast turnaround from previous drought conditions. But a lack of backpacker labour during the pandemic meant turning to innovative solutions to get through the season. Cathels invested in two picking machines that can assist workers who would otherwise bear the load of carrying heavy sacks and climbing ladders.

At $150,000 each, the machines were a significant investment, but one that orchard manager Steve Noldin said was worth the cost. "The more people we can get on the ground the quicker we can get our crop off."


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