Wiehann Steyn, Xolani Sibosa, and Dane McDonald

Nearly seven years ago HORTGRO Science challenged the apple industry through its Orchard of the Future (OoF) project. The project encouraged orchard designs that were novel, ‘outside of the box’, and pushed the limits of conventional fruit production systems. The goals were to inspire industry to utilise more dwarfing rootstocks thereby taking orchard efficiencies to the next level and to create demo sites where growers, technical advisors, and researchers could learn and experiment together. The challenge was taken up by the Fruitways, Two-a Day, Dutoit Agri groups, with the recent addition of ZZ2. OoFs were respectively planted at Graymead, Oak Valley, Paardekloof, and Bokveldskloof.

Paardekloof OoF – Willie Kotze

What is the objective of this OoF?

The main objective was to improve the output of class 1 fruit. Secondary objectives included a migration to more dwarfing rootstocks and less labour intensive orchards.

What is the progress on the orchard to date?

In December 2014 we covered half of the orchard with nets to determine what the effect on the trees would be. It is still “early days”. We only have one complete season’s data. In general we get a lot higher class one pack out form the orchards under nets due to sunburn reduction. In comparison with the uncovered part, the netted area has logged a 20 – 30% saving in water. We would like to analyse the records to quantify the tonnage produced by “good trees” and compare the OoF financially with conventional orchards. We would like to farm with trees like these in the future. The current season’s crop is estimated at 100t/ha.

Lessons learnt:

  • Do not grow M9 on weak/sandy soil
  • Difficult to chemically over thin.
  • Do not over crop the trees at an early stage. Aim to fill the space as soon as possible.
    • This is especially important for less vigorous varieties, but might be less of an issue for stronger growing scions like Gala.

Bokveldskloof OoF – Hendrik Pohl

Why was this OoF established?

The vision is to make orchard management easier. The main focus is how to improve the quality of production and the need to produce more export cartons per hectare.

What are the goals of this OoF?

We would like to achieve 300 (cumulative) tons per hectare in the sixth year. The breakdown is as follows: zero in the first year, about five tons in the second year, 30-35 in the third year, 60-65 in the fourth year, and then we must increase to 80-90 tons after that. Somewhere in the process we need to reach 100 tons per hectare if we are to achieve our goal of 300 tons.

Are there any preliminary results?

Compared to our orchard on M7 rootstock, the M9 orchard is an easy system to manage and easy for labour to understand. There are cost savings on fertiliser. Fruit size and fruit colour is significantly better.

Lessons learnt:

  • An easy-to-manage system with good results
  • Greater emphasis on orchard management as opposed to labour management

Graymead OoF – Stephen Rabe & Keith Bradley

Why was this OoF established?

To test the performance of M9 under South African conditions with a view to derive the benefits reaped by international players such as fruit quality and precocity.

What approach did you take in the management of the orchard?

It was a complete team approach. Farming on M9 takes a different approach to farming with conventional orchards. There was a relook at how we do things. From irrigation to fertiliser, tree training, and how we prune.

Are there any preliminary results?

This orchard has cumulatively produced five times more income than the conventional orchards. We broke even in this orchard in year four. So from now on it is profit. In our conventional orchards we have not recouped the cost of planting yet. So, from a financial point of view this orchard has outperformed our traditional orchards by a considerable margin.

Lessons learnt:

  • There are cost implications when not filling the tree space
  • High quality nursery tree quality is crucial
  • Tree stem to scaffold branch ratios are important, so careful manipulation is key
  • Rootstock-scion combination needs to be considered in plantings
  • You need to treat this rootstock/scion combination differently to a conventional tree.
  • A paradigm shift is needed as far as what you consider good tree performance.
  • Possibility is higher to convert to drip due to the efficiency and shallow root system.
  • Trellis needs to be a solid support structure and not a training system.

Oak Valley OoF – Graeme Krige & Neville van Buuren

What was the objective of this OoF?

Producing Granny Smith apples in the EGVV in the conventional way is a massive challenge, mostly due to high levels of sunburn and a very low tolerance for this defect. Currently the most effective way to alleviate sunburn to use shade netting. However, the use of shade net is coupled with several challenges; especially when using current industry standard, more vigorous rootstocks. Hence the objective of this orchard was to assess whether Granny Smith could be produced more profitably on new generation, more precocious rootstocks under shade nets in the EGVV.

How is progress in this orchard block to-date?

The orchard is in its fifth leaf, although it would be more useful to look at it from a fourth leaf perspective as we planted very small trees. We had a warmer than normal winter and at the start of the current season we struggled with delayed foliation and poor bud break. Yet, we predict a fair crop. We are expecting 50-60 tons per hectare.

Lessons learnt:

  • Neither shade nets, nor new rootstocks are “silver bullet” or “fix-it-all”
  • G222 is a viable option for Granny Smith under nets as far as vigour and precocity is concerned
  • With more dwarfing rootstocks you have to be diligent about supporting the tree. Not only for carrying the crop, but also to protect the graft union from snapping off.