Friday, April 19, 2024

Smart water solution unlocks new crop

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An innovative irrigation system integrated into newly planted cherry orchards around Tarras, Central Otago, signifies not only the arrival of new technology, but a significant shift in the district’s land-use. Carrfields Irrigation sales and design manager Brendan Hawes spoke to Richard Rennie.
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THE breathtaking country around Tarras and Lindis Pass is witnessing a shift in land-use as traditional sheep and beef farmers look to tap into new irrigation technology and proven high-value horticultural crops to diversify their farm income.

Brendan Hawes says in his time spent in the irrigation industry he has seen farm clients evolve from dry land drystock operators to centre-pivot irrigated stock finishers and most recently, to cherry and stone fruit growers.

His company has been working closely with orchard developers and investors Hortinvest Ltd, to install an innovative new micro-spray irrigation system that promises to make water application smarter, more sustainable and more effective for the newly established orchards.

Hortinvest orchards in the district cover a total of 200ha planted predominantly in cherry trees, planted largely in the past year and totalling about 85,000 trees.

The company has four orchards, with Ardgour Valley and Lindis Peaks the two most recently established.

These have been developed in conjunction with the Jolly family of Ardgour Station and the historic Lindis Peaks Station.

A need to combine effective frost mitigation with a system capable of good irrigation coverage prompted Hortinvest to commit to Carrfields’ understorey micro-spray system. The system has the ability to direct water effectively to the entire root area of the tree, and also operate as a fertigation system.

Application of water understorey as frost mitigation helps reduce disease risk, compared to above tree application.

“Being low to the ground also helps reduce wind drift and the ability to apply fertiliser means you can be very precise with application and do away with the need for trucks and spreaders and the ground compaction that can go with that,” Hawes said.

To optimise the layout of the pumped and gravity-fed system, high resolution drone mapping was used alongside irrigation software. This ensured water flow and pressure was matched to the land contour, critical when combined with a fertigation system requiring even spread of applied nutrients.

The system has one pressure regulated sprinkler per two trees, with control software provided through a cloud-based system capable of being operated through an iPad or smartphone.

Ultimately, the amount of water applied per hectare is similar to that used for growing pasture and the irrigation system means higher-value cherry and apricot crops can also be included alongside conventional pastoral farming.

“With the Lindis Peaks orchard we have the areas not irrigated by centre pivots doing the pasture planted in cherries and at Ardgour, one pivot has been reduced to a half a circle, with the rest in cherries,” he said.

The developments represent a move out of the traditional cherry growing areas of Otago nearer Cromwell, but one Hawes believes could expand even further in coming years.

“Typically, the traditional areas for growing cherries are where they are because of water rights going right back to the mining days. However, these new sites with good water supply, a dry climate and good chilling have just as much going for them,” he said.

The sites have an elevation of about 400m above sea level and the first Lindis Peaks cherries will be harvested in the summer of 2021-22, with full maturity reached in 2025-26.

The farming families of Lindis Peaks and Mt Pisa are also among the investors in Deep Creek Fruits, the company that earlier this year announced a second capital raise to fund a packhouse and to expand its orchards at Lindis Peaks from 35ha to 80ha.

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