Optimum fruit size is small
Since customers only want small apples, Tasmanian growers can focus on volume.
Unable to obtain trees on virus-free M.9 rootstocks, Australian orchardists like Howard Hansen have to get by with more vigorous rootstocks and use techniques such as girdling or growth regulators to control tree vigor.
Being an orchardist in Tasmania is different, and not just because the seasons are opposite from those of the Northern Hemisphere.
"The first point about apple growing in this country is our market demands smaller fruit," explained Howard Hansen, an orchardist at Grove, Tasmania. "The optimum size for us is 170 to 175 grams [113 count] only. If we get above 200 grams [size 100], the price starts dropping off, and above 220, you're going to send it to the processing factory for $40 a bin. It's completely opposite to North America. It allows us to grow bigger tonnage of small fruit."
Tasmania exports much of its fruit to the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. The preference for small fruit allows growers to crop the trees heavily.
For example, Hansen has Fuji trees on M.106 on a 2.5-by-5-meter spacing (8.2 feet by 16.5 feet) that have yielded less than 80 tons per hectare (80 bins per acre) only twice in the past six years. The largest crop was 93 tons.
Hansen's Pink Lady plantings averaged 47 tons per hectare (47 bins per acre) in the second leaf and 65 tons per hectare in the third leaf. Sundowner on M.26 rootstock has produced more than 80 tons per hectare.
Ten years ago, he was planting Jonagold on M.106 at a density of 1,700 trees per hectare (688 trees per acre). Now, he's planting at twice that density for most varieties other than Fuji. Tasmanian growers don't have access to virus-free M.9 rootstocks because Australian nurseries don't supply them. So, his Pink Lady trees are on M.26, and he uses girdling and applies the growth regulator Regalis (prohexadione calcium) to control the vigor of the tree. He uses Ethrel (ethephon) for thinning and benzyladenine (BA) to promote return bloom.
Hansen has Redchief Red Delicious that produce on average 85 tons per hectare. "Even though they're Red Delicious, at that type of yield you can't get rid of them," he said. "They sell at the end of the season for pretty good money.
"If we look at what we've done with apples in the last ten years, we've been too quick to remove blocks," he added. "We have our own nursery, and it's the nursery that's been pushing us to push orchards out. We've probably pushed out some good orchard. In hindsight, rather than pushing out that much orchard, we would buy more ground and plant. It would have been a good investment in the land."
Last spring (October and November), Tasmania's apple orchards were affected by the most serious frost in 30 years, which greatly reduced the crop. However, Hansen said apples account for only about 15 percent of his total business now because he packs and stores apples for other growers and is also a cherry grower and packer, so the impact was not too great.
"Apples are a decreasing share of our business," he said. "If it had happened 15 years ago when we only had apples, and we weren't doing so much marketing and storing, it would have been a disaster."
Because Tasmania is an island, growers are faced with a freight disadvantage of $25,000 per hectare compared with their mainland compatriots. An advantage they have, however, is good climatic conditions for coloring the apples. Hansen said girdling and the use of a reflective cloth under the trees also promote early coloring of the fruit, and his goal is to have the first Pink Lady apples of the season on the wholesale market in Sydney.
"If they have enough color and we can eat them, we pick them," he said. "We go for the cash. The price drops each week."
His strategy with Gala is the opposite. He believes his marketing advantage is in having good-storing Galas late in the season, and selling them as late as November.
Key challenges facing the Tasmanian apple industry
- Strong competition in domestic and international markets
- Low grower returns because of increased apple supplies and static demand
- Movement in the strength of the Australian dollar
- High production and postharvest handling costs
- Competition from other fruits such as bananas, citrus, stone fruits, and tropical fruits
- Competition from snacks and drinks
- Imports of juice concentrated and processed products from China
- Strong possibility of apple imports from New Zealand, United States, Chile, China, and South Korea
SOURCE: Predo Jotic, Tasmania Department of Primary Industries and Water