Before Austria joined the European Union in 1995, its apple growers enjoyed a closed, protected market and its apple industry was made up of many small growers producing a wide range of varieties.

Now that commodities can move freely between Austria and the other 26 EU countries, its fruit industry is changing. Dr. Leonhard Steinbauer at the research station of fruit production in Graz, Austria, shared how with members of the International Fruit Tree Association when they visited this winter.

About 80 percent of Austria’s 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of apples are in the region of Styria, in the southeast of the country, which is also the country’s major wine-producing region. It is known as the "green heart" of Austria because more than 60 percent of the area is forest.

Styria (known as Steiermark in German) produces about 116,000 tons of apples annually. Austria used to produce apples only for its own consumption, but is now exporting fruit to other European countries. Orchards are consolidating, and acreage is expanding.

The most important variety is Golden Delicious, followed by Gala, Braeburn, Jonagold, and Idared. Researchers at the Graz station are testing new varieties, such as Evelina, Kanzi, Mairac, Junami, Modi, and unnamed selections, to see if they are suited to the Styria region.

Richard Glossi, a production advisor with the fruit growers association OPST (Obst Partner Steiermark), said growers need 10 to 15 hectares (25 to 40 acres) of orchard to be full-time orchardists, and many farms have increased to twice that size during the past five years.

Werner Sommerbauer, a third-generation grower, is one of four orchardists in the picturesque village of Puch. He is a relatively large grower with 16 hectares (40 acres) of orchard and 20 hectares (50 acres of forest).

About 65 percent of Sommerbauer’s apples are Golden Delicious. Puch, which is at an elevation of 1,400 feet, has the perfect climate for growing Goldens, he said, because of the extreme swings between day and night temperatures.

Hail nets

Hail is a problem, however.

"The last ten years, we’ve had about 50 times hail," he said. "Last year, we had 13 heavy hails."

Sommerbauer has most of his orchard covered with hail nets, and the few trees that weren’t covered suffered 90 to 95 percent fruit damage last season, he said. Storms came from every direction.

One of his frustrations in using hail nets has been that the nets don’t last as long as the trees they’re covering. He has Golden Delicious trees that still produce well after 25 to 30 years.

Researchers at the Graz station are studying various types of hail nets and testing their durability and the influence of different net colors on fruit yield, skin color, sugar content, and firmness.

Sommerbauer said he prefers black net because it provides protection from sunburn as well as hail, and black net lasts between 20 and 22 years, whereas white net only lasts between 10 and 14 years. He estimated the cost of the hail net and fasteners at 15,000 euros per hectare (almost U.S.$9,000 per acre), with the support system costing a similar amount.

His average yield over the last ten years has been 30 to 33 tons per hectare (30 to 33 bins per acre). He hires pickers from the eastern European countries of Poland, Hungary, and Romania, and provides them with food and housing. They earn 5.2 euros (U.S.$6.76) per hour.

Glössi said that the 2007–2008 season was a good one for growers, with returns of 0.40 euro cents per kilo (24 U.S. cents per pound) to the growers, up from 36 euro cents for the 2006 crop, and 30 euro cents per kilo for the 2005 crop. He estimated the breakeven cost at 32 euro cents per kilo (U.S.$0.19 per pound).

The current season, however, is a difficult one because of a large harvest in Europe, said Fritz Kröpfl, owner of the packing operation Kröpfl Obsthandel in nearby Sebersdorf. Growers receive a payment of 10 euro cents per pound about three to four weeks after harvest, and then are paid the balance before next harvest.

Apples grown in Styria are sold in Germany, Scandinavia, Spain, Hungary, Croatia, and Romania, Kröpfl said.