Horticulture

Not all rosy for apple crop

By Country News

Dry conditions and skyrocketing water prices have taken their toll on this year’s apple crop.

Sweltering temperatures through December and January meant those growing Gala variety apples were left struggling to salvage a crop.

For Plunkett Orchards’ orchard manager Jason Shields, while overhead airconditioning saved some of the crop, apples left in the elements were ‘‘write-offs’’.

‘‘The weather has made it tough, the drought, water has been ridiculously expensive,’’ Mr Shields said.

It was a similar story with the pear crop according to Mr Shields, who said the orchard’s pears displayed good quality but yield was down 15 to 20 per cent purely because of size.

Struggles with heat and size are repeated across the region this season, with Rutherford Orchards owner Clarke Rutherford also facing a challenging season.

He thinned out his trees three times compared to the usual one, and said the fruit still struggled, with freshly exposed fruit scorched by the sun.

Standing in his Rushworth orchard, Mr Rutherford is now turning his attention to his Pink Lady apples, hoping there’ll be higher prices in return for his effort at the end of the season.

‘‘Everyone’s struggling for size,’’ he said.

‘‘The Pink Ladys look all right but it’s been a difficult season ... we spent an extra $150000 on top because of water prices.’’

Mr Rutherford won’t start picking his Pink Ladys for a few weeks yet, but 20 minutes’ drive away at Plunkett Orchards Mr Shields and his team are already ahead of the game, having started picking their Pink Lady crop last Wednesday.

‘‘We’ll pick about 250 bins a day until May,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s been tough ... we haven’t sacrificed and have used 25 per cent more water in the most expensive year.

‘‘You just hope you end up looking good. It’s farming, it’s legalised gambling.’’

While seasonal conditions have been tough, it’s the introduction of seven new machines that have made the picking process significantly easier for the Ardmona orchard.

A moving platform allows two canopy pickers and a handful of ground pickers to move along the rows, placing picked fruit on a conveyor belt with all apples going into a single bin.

‘‘It means no tractors, no trailers, no ladders, no bags. It’s a game changer,’’ Mr Shields said.

‘‘The OH&S benefits are huge ... quality is up 15 to 20 per cent and productivity is up about 15 per cent.’’

Although costing around $130000 each, Mr Shields said the machines only cost the business $3 a bin on average, with only a seven per cent efficiency improvement needed to cover their costs.