Friday, April 26, 2024

Robot-ready orchards are the future

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Planting systems increase productivity and uniform quality of fruit.
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Central Otago summer and pipfruit growers this week explored a new orchard growing system that has the potential to double productivity, improve environmental outcomes and boost labour efficiency.

The future orchard planting system, or FOPS, developed by Plant & Food Research, is based on the premise that having rows of fruit trees closer together will increase productivity.

In addition, growing trees in a planar (two-dimensional) structure will ensure good light penetration into the canopy, thereby ensuring uniform high quality fruit.

Dr Jill Stanley, Plant & Food Research’s crop physiology group leader, said many new apple, apricot and cherry commercial orchards are using the new system or, in the case of cherries, a similar iteration  known as the UFO growing system.

Both take a two-dimensional approach to canopy structure, which also makes them better suited to accommodate automation and robotics than a conventional orchard, because fruit is more easily accessible.

“The benefits of an orchard being ‘robot ready’ could be huge in the coming years,” Stanley said.

The project to increase the adoption of these new growing systems is being jointly funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund (SFF Futures), Plant & Food Research, and industry partners New Zealand Apples and Pears, Rockit Global, and Summerfruit New Zealand.

Field days are being held to show growers the new system.

“The hope is by hosting these sorts of information sessions, growers using conventional systems will be able to explore the viability of converting their operations and early adopters can learn from each other,” Stanley said.

She said early adopters of narrow-row planar cordon systems of sweet cherry trees have already demonstrated consistently high yields of excellent quality cherries.

For a high value crop like cherries, the benefits could be pronounced.

In the 2022-23 season nearly 3600 tonnes of cherries worth $88 million were grown in NZ, the vast majority in Central Otago, which are harvested between mid-December and early February. 

Similar benefits are also being observed in the apple industry.

Summerfruit NZ chief executive Kate Hellstrom said the industry has a bright future, with demand for NZ fruit anticipated to keep growing.

“In order to continue to realise that potential, it’s important we explore future growing systems that help address labour shortages, crop variability and  anticipated challenges with water restrictions and the warming climate,” she said.

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