Deciding our food future

Driving around my local district at this time of year, bulldozers, chainsaws and tractors are a common sight, as growers push out under-performing blocks of trees, ready for reworking. I decided to find out more about why there is a constant program of re-planting fruit trees in a district that is renowned for its high quality fruit production. If the fruit trees in this area are so good, why do growers constantly need to change and improve?

It turns out that long gone is the romantic image of expansive orchards of widely spaced, large, gnarled and twisted 100 year old apple trees. They are now just a nostalgic memory evident only in historical archives and shared reminiscences. The modern orchard consists of younger, high performing trees planted closely together with their growth carefully managed for optimum performance. Further,at any one time, up to 10% of an orchard can be out of production being reworked for new varieties.IMG_3317

The performance of every block within a modern orchard is intensely scrutinized every year. Blocks that are not returning a profit are either pushed out or earmarked for future reworking. This can be a difficult, emotional decision for a grower to make, as they have poured their heart and soul into getting each orchard block to perform to its optimum. But the reality is, they have to take a step back and assess their business performance with the same careful scrutiny as any other business manager.

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make, however, is which variety to plant next. This is a big question, as it will take many years for the results of this decision to become apparent. In an apple orchard, it takes about 7 years from planting for a commercial block of trees to yield a return on investment. Establishment costs are significant, with a large up-front cash injection required.

In any successful business, there is a certain element of risk taking. Decisions made now can impact on the success or failure of the business for many years to come. Educated best-guesses made on all the market data available at the time can quickly unravel when market conditions change. This element of risk, however, is no more apparent than in modern perennial horticulture (fruit and nut tree cropping).

As consumers, we are spoiled for choice in a wide range of fresh produce. Tastes and demands are fickle, and there is constant competition for shelf space in supermarkets. What can one day be a much loved variety can soon become a product that sits on the shelf, unwanted. In addition, fresh produce has to fight against a plethora of snack foods that are backed by massive marketing budgets, drawing in shoppers an array of exciting promises.

Our plant scientists are working hard to breed new varieties that stand out from the crowd and provide a new taste sensation or point of difference. There is also a demand for varieties that keep for longer and are more pest and disease tolerant or use less water. This breeding process is achieved through cross pollination of existing varieties. Once the cross pollination process begins, it takes years to gradually select the more promising varieties, followed by several more years of field trials until the cream of the crop rises to the top.

From the start of a breeding program until a new variety is commercialized can take at least ten years. With lots of exciting new varieties coming into the market place, only some are destined for success, while others will invariably fail. The much loved Pink Lady® apple is truly an Australian success story, coming from Western Australia and now in high demand right around the globe.

Even before the grower has begun to push out a block of trees, they have to have made the decision two years earlier what variety they wish to plant. They put the order in with a nursery for how many trees that want of what variety grafted onto what rootstock.

When making this critical decision a grower is faced with a range of choices. A tough decision to make 2 years prior to planting and a further 7 years after that until the trees are in full production!

Do they stick with an existing, well known variety that, while is a known quantity now, may be out of favour in a volatile market place in 9 years time? Do do they opt for a newer variety that may either be a total success or a complete failure? Does the variety have sufficient volume of plantings to have critical mass in the market place? Is it well supported by a strong marketing and promotions package and how much will it cost to buy-in to that scheme?

No matter how much homework they do, at some point, a grower has to take a deep breath and muster up all the courage of their convictions to commit to a decision. Once the trees are ordered from the nursery, cultivated and planted into the ground, they will again pour their hearts and souls for the next five to seven years into doing the best they possibly can to get the trees to grow and yield quality fruit.

It is only once the trees are producing commercial quantities of fruit that are being packed, stored and sold that they will be able to take stock on that vital decision made many years earlier. It is inevitable that sometimes that decision will prove to have been the wrong one and growers will have to write off all that hard work and start again. But more often than not, through years of experience and careful consideration, the decision will be a good one. This is one of the most rewarding moments in a grower’s life, when years of preparation and toil result in the production of a high quality, profitable crop that consumers enjoy! The culmination of nearly 20 years of development.

The next time I bite into a fresh piece of fruit, I will be giving considerably more thought to the many years of its evolution and perhaps not taking it quite so much for granted.

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The real cost of perfect food

According to the recently released National Food Plan, it is estimated that a whopping 30 to 50 per cent of all food produced on the planet is not eaten. In Australia, on average each person generates roughly 360 kilograms of food waste every year.

These figures are staggering. In order to feed an ever growing population, we cannot just continue to strive for greater production efficiencies without ignoring the issue of food waste.

There are various reasons for food wastage that occur. For many of us, food that goes off in our refrigerator before we get to eat it or left-overs from restaurants that get discarded are the obvious ones.

However a significant degree of waste is also occurring as a by-product of our seemingly insatiable demand for fresh produce that looks perfect, has consistent eating quality and is of perfect size and colour. Much of this waste is not even taken into account in the quoted figures above!

Fresh produce that does not meet a required specification is often discarded before it even leaves the field. Perfectly good food is rejected for a minor blemish or for being the wrong colour, size or shape.

Further, growers are having to go to extraordinary lengths to produce this “perfect” produce; investing heavily in complex growing systems and fighting a battle they can never win completely to iron out the “imperfections” of nature. It takes a lot of effort and costs a lot of money to grow the perfect piece of fruit and vegetable. It takes even more effort to grow an entire field of exactly the same perfect fruit or vegetables.

I would like to share the story of how Australia’s apple growers are tackling this challenge.

Right now as we move into winter, apple growers around the country are beginning a year-long challenge of fruit production. They are taking care of post-harvest nutrition to ensure that the trees have plenty of reserves as they go into dormancy. They are also beginning the process of winter pruning, which goes on for many months. Every single tree in an orchard is pruned by hand. Pruning is a complex science and also an art form that sets down the shape of the tree for the coming year, its vigour and how many pieces of fruit will be carried by each tree. Every tree may be pruned several times over to achieve the desired result. It is one of the most fundamental processes in a commercial apple orchard, but also one of the most labour intensive. 20120724_162910Modern orchards are planted at very high tree densities and dwarfing rootstocks to enable greater control over tree vigour and allow for pruning trees to a shape that allows for even light distribution throughout the canopy. This is critical in achieving even colour distribution and fruit ripening.

The amount of fruit that each tree carries directly affects the size of the fruit. So this is a key consideration in all orchard activities. For example, growers strive to grow a Pink Lady apple of a 75 mm diameter, because this has been shown to be the size of apple that consumers are looking for. Apples significantly bigger or smaller than this just won’t sell as well.

As we head into spring and the first blossoms appear, some growers may also consider a process of root pruning, where the tree roots are gently ripped to reduce tree vigour and improve consistency of yields from one year to the next. Bee hives are introduced into orchards to assist with pollination. Good pollination is critical in achieving target yields and the target number of fruit per tree.20121001_102029

Then growers assess the numbers of flowers and viable fruit buds. On many trees, various methods of fruit thinning are then required to reduce the crop load. This is usually achieved through a mixture of chemical applications of plant hormones to induce some shedding, followed up by hand thinning. This is another manual process that occurs during spring, where excess fruit is individually picked off each tree and thrown onto the ground.20121025_165448Through the season, growers then continually monitor and assess the growth of their trees as well as the size of the fruit. Often, growers will go through and do a summer prune to remove excess canopy that is shading the fruit – another manual process.

Growers also closely monitor pests and diseases and use integrated pest management techniques to minimise any damage to fruit. In the heat of summer, sunscreen may even be applied in periods of extreme heat to minimise the effects of fruit sunburn (a special food-safe fruit sunscreen)! Often extremely expensive netting structures are used to avoid damage from birds.

Closer to harvest, if fruit size is a problem growers will adjust their water and nutrient management accordingly, and also may consider a second hand-thinning. Many growers also roll out a reflective matting onto the ground surface that helps reflect light into the lower canopy and improve evenness of fruit colour.IMG_3027

At harvest, all picking is done by hand, to ensure fruit is not bruised or damaged. At this point, any obviously blemished, pale, misshapen or poorly sized fruit is discarded straight onto the ground. Fruit is picked at the correct ripeness for its storage needs, then immediately cooled as quickly as possible to ensure it is maintained at optimum freshness. IMG_3057IMG_3044 Fruit that is identified to be at risk of not storing well will be sold straight away. Fruit that is to be stored for longer will be kept in high tech cool rooms where gas levels and moisture levels are controlled to ensure maximum fruit quality after storage.

At the point of packing, growers have to aim for at least a 90% pack out rate. This means that at least 90% of the fruit they supply to the pack house will be sold as first grade fruit. As much as possible of this fruit needs to be of the optimum size range to get the best returns. Any lower pack out rate, or if they get the sizing wrong, they will be losing money. The returns on second grade fruit going to juice or processing just aren’t enough to tip this balance.20130130_092730All their activities throughout the year are targeted towards providing a product that is deemed in demand by the general consumer. What is referred to in industry as the “mars bar fruit” – something that looks and eats exactly the same every time, no matter what part of the tree or orchard it comes from.

This story is not unique to the apple industry. It is across all fresh fruit and vegetable production.

So the question becomes is all this effort and in-field wastage really necessary? Further more, by the very essence of demanding consistency of product, are we as a result creating a more mediocre eating experience? Are we providing a consistently good product, but missing out on the surprise experiences that occur through natural variability and complexity.

Are we jeopardizing the very variability that is essential to natural order and life? Are we missing the chance natural genetic mutations that may provide new opportunities for further exciting eating experiences?

What are your thoughts? What do you look for when you go to buy your fruit and vegetables?

 

Reflections of an apple orchard in Autumn

One thing that farmers are often overlooked for is their deep affinity for the land. A farmer has an intrinsic sense of appreciation for the physical landscapes around them and never takes them for granted.

I am fortunate to live on an apple orchard and every single day I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am. No matter how stressed or unhappy I may be after a particularly difficult day, a walk around the property has an incredibly calming effect. It never ceases to amaze me how often my breath is taken away by the beauty of my surroundings.

cropped-img_0838.jpgAutumn in the heart of apple growing country is in particular a very special time of year. It is the time when the long toils of the year come to fruition, when the fruit ripens and is harvested. It is a hive of activity!

The sounds of autumn here are listening to the low rumble of tractors shifting bins of apples, the clank of ladders and the gentle chatter of pickers in the orchard. It is the growl of trucks carrying bins of fruit to be packed or stored, with a steady line of trucks heading to the cool stores well into the evening. It also means very long working days as growers start at first light, pick all day, then work to get bins out for the next day and put fruit away late into the night,

IMG_3050Autumn is also when the night temperatures drop, with cold, crisp mornings followed by clear, sunny days. The cool nights and warm sunshine combine to bring out the best possible colours and flavours in the fruit. The cold morning air and hint of frost or dew on the ground takes your breath away when you take the first few steps outside, then invigorates your body. Before long, the sun creeps up over the horizon and gradually warms you through. Then as the sun plummets over the horizon again at the end of the day, so does the temperature, ready to begin the cycle again.

Autumn in an orchard is also a brilliant display of colour, with leaves changing to a kaleidoscope of yellows after the fruit has been harvested. By late afternoon, the dusty air filters the sunshine to a golden yellow, reflecting off the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees and the dry grassy paddocks nearby, contrasting with the deep greens of the orchard grass and the brilliant pinks and reds of the fruit still ripening on the trees.

100_2457In an apple orchard, Autumn is also characterized by the sweet smell of ripe fruit on the trees and in the cool rooms, and discarded fruit fermenting on the orchard floor. The smells of autumn in an apple orchard are divine!

But the greatest joy of all is biting into a crisp, sweet, juicy apple that has been freshly picked from the tree. Savouring the loud crunch resonating through your ears, the intense flavours and magnificent juiciness.

As harvest draws to a close and winter approaches, now is the time where apple growers take stock, review their activities for the year and consider the commercial gains or losses of their enterprise. However it is also a time to pause and be grateful for having the privilege to be caretakers of this amazing corner of the world and to provide fresh, healthy food to our communities.