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The shape of trees to come

Leon Jahae, a top-fruit consultant working with Agrovista, provides a fascinating insight into how orchard management might evolve over the next few years.

Over the past 15 years, UK orchard design and husbandry has shifted towards higher productivity per hectare whilst, in most cases, using reduced resources. We have developed and adapted higher density systems that come into full production earlier, enabling us to simplify tree husbandry. However, increasing demands from the marketplace, limited availability of skilled and unskilled labour, the reduced availability of crop protection products and the effects of climate change, will force us to go even further and build on the past 15 years of evolution.

The 2025 orchard

Transition and development do not happen overnight, but the time it takes to implement change will continue to reduce.

Climate limitations

Climate responses will be region-dependent, but increased risks of sun-scorch and spring frost, as well as changes in the timing and amount of rainfall, are likely in varying degrees, wherever you farm. As climate risk factors increase, it will be necessary to improve water-use efficiency through a combination of better delivery mechanisms and reduced evaporative losses, together with improved water capture and storage capabilities. It is not unthinkable that extreme temperatures, the increased risk of hail, and a further reduction in the availability of crop protection products will lead us to overhead cooling systems, netting and protectant sprays.

New apple and pear varieties

New apple and pear varieties will continue to enter the crowded market, and only the best-marketed varieties are likely to remain viable. Pest and disease resistance in the new varieties will play an even more important role, but quality will remain paramount.

Data

Management and data collection will move from orchard level to tree level. In reality, when we are hand-pruning and hand-thinning, for instance, we are already managing individual units. These tasks are guided by previous experience and simple rules and are often made easier or more difficult depending on the uniformity, or otherwise, of the orchard. Keywords such as size, shape, quantity and colour determine the husbandry. Data processing operates on very similar principles, capturing this kind of information and processing it into decisions. These technologies are not new and will be incorporated into orchard management.

Introducing new technology

Computer vision

This technology is ideally suited to the top-fruit sector, as a computer is programmed to identify objects based on size, colour and shape, or any almost any other characteristic, to provide measurements. Through this, computers can be made to gain a high level of understanding from digital images or videos, automating tasks that the human visual system currently does.

Soil mapping

This is used in the application of nutrients and water, based on soil and plant requirements, and is already commonplace in many arable operations. For the fruit grower, further fine-tuning to enable mapping to work as a tree-based operation will help to ensure its widespread uptake.

Self-driving machinery

This technology is by no means new. Driverless tractors were demonstrated during the late 1970s and 1980s, and tractors that can mow and spray without an on-board operator are already in use on UK farms.

Robotic harvesters

Harvesting fruit autonomously, based on colour and size, is possible, but needs further fine-tuning. It will become cost-effective within the foreseeable future and other similar repetitive tasks are also likely subjects for automation.

Adapting and facilitating new technologies

Most farms already collect a lot of data, such as weather factors, full-bloom dates, yield/hectare/year, harvest dates, fruit-size development, and spray and nutrient applications. The more data you store, the easier it will be to implement new technologies.

Irrigation and fertigation

Most of us will be able to irrigate or fertigate different orchard blocks separately, and some of us will be able to irrigate or fertigate rows of trees separately. Very few will be able to irrigate or fertigate to the needs of an individual tree, determined by the soil type and soil structure in that specific area of the orchard.

Correct orchard design

The aim should be to maximise the value of inputs through efficiency

  • Best possible light interception and distribution
  • High planting density, including the possible introduction of multi-leader systems and, if necessary, stronger rootstocks
  • Readiness for automation

We will be working with narrow canopies and their associated efficiency gains. Canopies would typically be 30-40cm wide, resulting in improved efficiency in pruning, thinning, picking and most other orchard tasks. Very narrow canopies lend themselves to existing labour-saving technologies, such as over-row sprayers, orchard platforms and harvesting aids. But, very importantly, they are also robot ready!

So where is this heading? An orchard designed around 2,500 multileader trees with four leaders per tree contains 10,000 production units/ha. Each unit has a two-metre production length, giving a total of 20,000m or 2km/ha. In UK conditions, this has the potential to produce 100 tonnes/ha of uniform quality fruit. We have already picked up this challenge and are turning it into reality.