Establishing a fruit or nut orchard
Published: April 2012
Reviewed: May 2013
This guide describes some of the skills and resources that need to be considered before entering the business of fruit and nut orchard production.
There are two key questions to consider:
- Can I grow it?
- Can I sell it?
The most critical is the second question for there is no point in producing any crop unless there is a market for it and it can be sold at a price that covers costs and will return a profit.
Points to consider when choosing an orchard enterprise
- Costs and returns on investment
- Complexity of management
- Labour requirements
- Water security
The key areas of risk to production include: pollination, pests and diseases, and climatic factors such as, drought, frost, hail, wind and heat. Orchard yield and quality is determined by the integrated management of the soil, irrigation, tree canopy and nutrition. These inputs are dependent on each other as water and nutrients cannot be separated from the soil that supports the root system that in turn dictates the performance of the canopy and therefore the yield.
Key factors for success
- Growing the right varieties (meeting market demand)
- Business and orchard management and mechanisation
- Economic return on investment
- Efficient use of water
- Shortest lead time to first commercial harvest
- Consistency of production including yield and quality
- Choosing the right region, soil type, available water and land aspect
Tree density may range from one hundred to several thousand trees per hectare. The relationship between tree spacing and yield illustrates that the more trees planted on a hectare of land, the higher the initial yield. However at higher densities, unless trees are trained carefully they will eventually compete with each other for sunlight resulting in a reduction in yield per hectare and quality of fruit and nuts produced. Higher density plantings will have greater establishment costs but there will be earlier economic return on investment.
A yield projection for an orchard shows that it takes on average 4 years of lead-time until fruit or nut commercial production begins (Table 1). Typically there is a steady rise in yield until year 7 and then a slow down or plateau in yield is reached in subsequent years. In fruit and nut orchards, the lead time to the first crop can be shortened by establishing the canopy quickly and filling the allotted tree space by arranging limbs to optimise light interception. Shortening the lead-time and high yields can be achieved by using best management practices.
|Crop Species||Stone fruit||Almonds||Pome fruit||Walnuts||Pecans||Hazelnuts||Pistachios|
|Lead time (years)||2-3||3||4-5||4||6||5-7||5-6|
Important factors in fruit production
Location and orchard site selection
When choosing a potential site for an orchard, issues relating to the land, such as soil type, topography, aspect, slope and irrigation supply need to be considered carefully. Climatic factors for the chosen site including temperature, rainfall, wind, hail, chill units and frost potential also need to be taken into consideration. These factors are discussed in more detail under the following headings.
Site selection for an orchard must take into account local and regional weather patterns. Many deciduous fruit and nut trees are adapted to a Mediterranean climate of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Frosts in spring can injure flowers and affect fruit set and shoot growth. Rain during spring and summer can increase the risk of fungal and bacterial diseases while hail and strong winds can cause physical damage to fruit and limbs. To avoid the risk of sunburn on fruit and limbs, covering trees with shade cloth, sunburn protection sprays and painting of tree limbs may be necessary.
Deciduous fruit and nut trees develop their vegetative and fruiting buds in the summer. As winter approaches, the already developed buds go dormant in response to both shorter day lengths and low temperatures. This dormancy or sleeping stage protects buds from the effects of cold weather. Once buds have started dormancy, they will be tolerant to temperatures much below freezing and will not grow in response to mid-winter warm spells.
Buds remain dormant until they have accumulated sufficient chilling units (CU) of cold weather. A chill unit is allocated when temperatures occur within certain parameters (chill accumulation models). When enough chilling accumulates, the buds are ready to grow in response to high temperatures. As long as enough CU have been accumulated the flower and leaf buds develop normally. If the buds do not receive sufficient CU during winter to completely release dormancy, trees may have uneven flowering, poor fruit set and shoot dieback. Fruit and nut species and cultivars have different requirements for CU and the selection needs to be matched to the climate of the area to be planted. When selecting cultivars consideration of the future effects of climate change and likely reductions in CU for the production area.
Tree crops tend to be planted on light-textured soils such as sandy loams or loams. Soil types are classified by reference to the proportions of silt, sand and clay, referred to as texture. Because texture may change with depth, the thickness of each soil layer (horizon) should also be considered. Field assessments of soil include texture, colour, aggregation, rooting depth of vegetation, presence of lime or gravel, hardpans and water-tables. Soil analysis in the laboratory may include pH, strength, porosity, water-holding capacity, organic matter, nutrient status, salt content, cation exchange capacity (nutrient retention) slaking and dispersion. A soil test is essential before planting to allow application of soil treatments and amendments which cannot effectively be carried out after planting.
Many tree crops are sensitive to poor drainage (waterlogging) of the soil profile. The perennial nature of tree roots increases the risk of root disease from heavy rainfall, flooding or poor irrigation practice. Shallow topsoils (15-20cm deep) when formed into a treeline bank can provide good drainage, deeper surface soil and when managed carefully will support a healthy root system. Shallow roots can take advantage of the high levels of aeration, temperature, biological activity, and low levels of soil strength as well as being closer to irrigation and nutrients applied at the soil surface.
By growing cover crops and adding organic mulch, porosity and stability of the soil is increased allowing frequent irrigation with a reduced risk of waterlogging and disease of tree roots. Shallow soils can also have an important part to play in controlling excessive vegetative growth as roots find it harder to explore deeper due to an impeding layer or an abrupt change in soil texture.
In the DEPI Tatura System, to improve drainage and to optimise land use, the topsoil is hilled into a treeline bank approximately 0.5 m high. From soil tests, the specified amount of lime is incorporated and gypsum spread on the surface in a one metre wide strip on the treeline. Ryegrass is sown over the entire orchard. Where compacted (hardpan) subsoil is present, a ripper with a winged-tine is used to till the soil to a depth of 60 cm to create aggregates in the subsoil. The trees are planted and the bare soil, created by the tillage operation, is covered with straw mulch 1 metre wide.
Steps recommended as a guide to setting up a new orchard
- In late summer/autumn, peg out the orchard treelines accurately and install the irrigation mains.
- Use a road grader to move the topsoil from the centre of the traffic line to the treeline to create a bank approximately 0.5 m high.
- For acid soils (pH <6.0), apply lime (amount determined by a soil test) in a 1 metre wide strip along the treeline and incorporate with a rotary-hoe.
- Install irrigation laterals and microjet sprinklers (output 5-10 mm/hr) and irrigate for 4-5 hours.
- When the soil has drained to around field capacity (2-3 days), cultivate the entire orchard with a tined implement, power harrow or a rotary hoe and smooth the soil surface.
- For dispersive soils, apply gypsum (amount determined by a soil test) in a 1 metre wide strip along the treeline.
- Sow the orchard to ryegrass or a ryegrass and clover mix and irrigate for 2-3 hours.
- In late winter, mow the grass/clover sward close to the ground.
- In compacted subsoils, use a winged-tine ripper to a depth of 60 cm in 3 passes in increments of 20 cm.
- Cultivate the 1 metre wide strip with a tined implement, power harrow or a rotary hoe and smooth the soil surface.
- Plant the trees without compacting the soil and water-in lightly to prevent slumping of the soil.
- Apply a surface mulch of straw in a 1 metre wide strip on the treeline.
- In spring/summer, use herbicides to control weeds in a 1 metre wide strip on the treeline.
- Slash the orchard and deliver the clippings onto the treeline to supplement the straw mulch.
Salinity and sodicity
Fruit and nut crops generally have a low tolerance to salt (Table 2). Soil salinity can be measured by electrical conductivity (EC) of a soil solution present mainly as sodium chloride (NaCl2) and high levels can result in soil structure damage due to sodicity. A sodic soil (soils high in sodium) will disperse (run together) upon wetting restricting moisture penetrating the soil and set hard upon drying limiting the movement of water, oxygen and the growth of tree roots.
Over years of crop production and irrigation, many of our horticultural soils have accumulated salt in the soil profile. In addition, saline groundwater levels can rise to the soil surface or to the root zone during wet weather and flooding of orchards.
The chloride (Cl) component present in saline soils can be leached out of the root zone of the tree by irrigation and rainfall. However, the sodium (Na) component can be left behind firmly attached to clay particles. Affected soils have poor infiltration and drainage resulting in waterlogging, increased run-off, poor water storage and surface crusting. Gypsum or calcium sulphate is used to manage soil salinity and sodicity.
|Crop||Soil salinity EC (dS/m) of the saturation extract|
|Threshold||25% yield loss|
|Apple & pear||1.7||3.3|
Most orchard trees have the desired cultivar (variety) grafted onto a rootstock or are grown as cuttings on their own roots to ensure cloning of selected traits. Nursery trees should be selected from high-performing cultivars, genetically uniform, free of pathogens, trained to a nominated style and managed to come into production at an early age. The root system on these trees should be fibrous and dense and handled in such a way as to ensure there is no check in tree growth after transplanting to the orchard. The roots may be treated with beneficial fungi and bacteria to resist root infections and to improve the uptake of water and nutrients by the tree.
The use of vigorous stocks are useful for early growth in the life of an orchard but vigorous rootstocks increase the cost of pruning and canopy management.
Vegetative growth must be controlled and the resources of the tree directed into fruit and nut yield and quality. This can be achieved using pruning and training methods as well as irrigation management.
Dwarfing rootstocks are available in some tree species and may prove useful e.g. apple rootstocks from the East Malling series, when grafted to commercial apple cultivars, produce compact trees with high yields of fruit.
Variety selection is critical and needs to be based on market demand. The choice also depends on region and climate e.g. low chill, susceptibility to frost or rain (some fruit varieties are prone to splitting of the stone and/or the flesh). Some stone fruit quickly become unfashionable and so there is a need to review and renew the varieties every few years by replanting.
Water availability is essential to consider as commercial orchards must have reliability of supply and cannot produce optimum yields without irrigation. Water management is one of the largest and most important inputs into an orchard. Dry summers combined with shallow, fragile soils means that in mid-summer following irrigation, there may only be around a two or three day water supply at optimum levels held in the soil. Orchard trees are dependent on a regular irrigation supplied on demand, and dictated by the prevailing weather conditions.
Careful scheduling of irrigation based on a calculation of tree water use from meteorological data, monitoring of soil water status and measurement of the internal water potential of the tree are the tools to decide the amount and frequency of the irrigation applied. Water Budget Models are available to calculate tree water use.
Advances in irrigation technology have improved water use efficiency through the use of microjet or drip irrigation. Use of microjets produces uniform distribution because water is spread through the air, wets the soil slowly and reduces structural breakdown but there is potential for more water loss due to evaporation. Drip irrigation has less even distribution over the root zone because the soil is saturated under the dripper and lateral movement of water is dictated by soil properties as well as by gravity.
Irrigation can be managed in strategic ways to reduce vigour without penalising orchard quality and yield. Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI) is a technique where water is withheld at strategic times to reduce excessive shoot growth in the tree. In some crops, RDI can give water savings without a yield penalty whilst fruit size and quality are unaffected. The objective is to produce enough vegetative vigour to ensure future bud development and to channel the remaining energy of the tree into orchard yield.
Tree training may involve pruning, pinching, tying, cincturing, notching, bending, twisting and spreading of shoots plus the use of growth regulators. The size, angle, placement and type of branching must be manipulated to create a specific tree architecture that is efficient and uniform in capturing sunlight throughout the orchard.
The amount of intercepted sunlight in the orchard has a profound effect on shoot growth, flower formation, fruit set, fruit development, fruit yield and quality. For optimum light interception the maximum tree height in summer should not exceed 80% of the row width.
Trees may be trained as a vase, bush, central leader, Tatura Trellis or espalier or to the many other styles available. Trees may be free-standing or alternatively in a hedgerow where trees touch each other within but not across the row.
Trees trained into a central leader (pyramid) shape, e.g. pome fruit and walnuts or Tatura Trellis e.g. stone fruit, will intercept more sunlight than umbrella-shaped or vase trees through the increased surface area of the canopy and by less shading of the lower parts of the tree.
For function and growth, plants obtain most of the mineral nutrients from the soil-water solution. The major nutrients needed are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Secondary nutrients are calcium, magnesium and sulphur whilst micronutrients are iron, manganese, zinc, copper, boron, molybdenum and chlorine.
Soil texture, minerals and organic matter that make up the soil mass have a strong bearing on the buffering capacity to hold nutrients and resist the loss of nutrients due to leaching. Organic matter plays an important part in controlling the availability of nutrients, especially nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur. Sandy soils have less buffering capacity and are readily leached of nutrients. Clay soils have a strong buffering capacity and because they tend to drain slowly, nutrients are not leached readily but de-nitrification (loss of nitrogen) can occur under waterlogged conditions.
Soil pH affects both the availability and absorption of mineral nutrients. Measurements of soil pH can be a good guide to the diagnosis of nutrient deficiencies and should be corrected before nutrients are applied. Low pH (<5.5) may result in deficiencies of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, or molybdenum and perhaps excesses of manganese, iron, or aluminium. High pH (>7.5) may result in deficiencies in manganese, iron, zinc or copper. Some nitrogen fertilisers will acidify the soil over time so the choice of product must be matched to soil pH.
A soil analysis will indicate the level of nutrients present, but not necessarily available to the tree. It is essential that an annual program of leaf or sap analysis is carried out to provide the best guide of plant nutrient levels to tailor fertiliser application to meet the plant needs. Fertigation where soluble nutrients are injected into the irrigation system provides a cheap and efficient means to apply nutrients to the orchard.
As a general rule a mature, high-yielding fruit or nut orchard may remove between 200 – 300 kg/ha of pure nitrogen each year. To maintain this level of production the nitrogen needs to be replaced by application of an appropriate fertiliser.
Fruit and nut trees may have male and female parts as one flower or as separate flowers. Pollen released by the male flower may not coincide with a receptive female flower on the same tree. For effective pollination, many fruit and nut trees require a different cultivar (variety) or, in some cases, a different species from the same plant family. Tables of suitable pollinators can be accessed through nurseries, texts or from the internet. Most fruit trees are pollinated by bees and other insects and to ensure good yields bee hives may need to be introduced into the orchard. Most nut trees are pollinated by wind so do not need bees. The exception in nut trees is the almond which is also pollinated by bees. The number of pollinator trees versus the rest of the orchard may be from <5% to 50% depending on the species and variety. Some varieties are self-fertile and do not need separate pollinator trees.
Integrated pest and disease management
All fruit and nut crops will have some potential pest and disease problems. It is essential to monitor crops for pests and diseases as well as the incidence of beneficial insects. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective combination of chemical, cultural (such as, farm management practices) and biological methods to keep, weeds, insect pest numbers, disease pressure and other crop production problems low enough to prevent significant economic loss.
Crop monitoring is carried out by visual inspection of the crop for the presence of pests & diseases, crop damage, and beneficial insects. Monitoring can also be done by setting up traps for specific pests and these will need to be inspected regularly. It is important to consider that if only low levels of pests or diseases are present it may not be necessary to apply any control practices and existing pests may be controlled by beneficials (e.g. beneficial insects) accepting that the pest or disease may not cause economic damage.
If control is warranted then it is important to consider what beneficials are present, are they controlling other pests and are there targeted, soft chemicals (that protect the beneficial insects) available. For some pests such as aphids or caterpillars there are targeted pesticides that will not kill a number of the beneficials but will control the targeted pest, e.g. specific aphicides. It is important to remember that if a broad spectrum chemical is used it will not only kill the targeted pest but also a range of insects that control pests. Adoption of IPM helps protect the environment for chemical use may be reduced, or replaced by less toxic, targeted chemicals and/or, the introduction of natural predators.
Fruit fly is an important consideration depending on location and if present, there will be a need to meet control and management requirements to supply different markets. It also likely that due to climate change and warmer winters that there will be an increased risk of infestations. Other key pests include Light Brown Apple Moth, Codling Moth, Two-Spotted Mite and Carpophilus Beetle.
The spray program needed for fruit and nut production will be dependant on a range of factors such pest levels, weather (temperature and rainfall), and quality requirements for the crop i.e. what is the tolerance level for damage to the marketable crop. Some organisms have been shown to be resistant to certain chemicals or chemical groups. It is important to minimise the development of resistance using a number of resistance management strategies that have been developed. Chemical labels also give information on how to minimise resistance that may include rotating chemical groups or limiting the number of sprays per crop.
There are a range of legal requirements that must be complied with when using chemicals. These include having the appropriate chemical user certification, adhering to withholding periods (length of time after spraying that a crop can be harvested) and strict rules on record keeping.
It is also advisable to undertake a Farm Chemical User Course which is regularly run by training institutions such as TAFE. This is also a precursor to obtaining an Agricultural Chemical User's Permit, which is essential for the legal use of some chemicals.
Advice on chemical control of pests and diseases can be obtained from authorised dealers in agricultural chemicals or registrations from Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
Orchard infrastructure and equipment
There is a significant long term investment in infrastructure in orchard development both in trees and equipment.
A list of basic farm infrastructure and operating equipment may include the following:
- Irrigation infrastructure and controller
- Fertigation tank and injector
- Machinery shed
- Grading and packing machinery
- Coolrooms, CA, forced air or hydro cooling
- Orchard sprayer
- Herbicide sprayer
- Bulk bins & bin trailers
- Pruning equipment
- Netting (shade, hail and bird)
Quality Assurance (QA) allows a business to document in a formal management plan all of the actions that are needed to deal with risks identified in producing a product for market. This allows the business to define the real risks, manage them appropriately and be able to prove through verifiable records and external auditing that risks and management processes have been identified and followed. There is an expectation from major retail chains that suppliers will have a QA system in place and some retailers have their own QA systems. QA adoption will help establish the grower as a reliable supplier of quality produce services in national and international markets.
Produce can be sold at the farm gate, at farmer's markets, to processors, direct to supermarkets, through wholesale markets or export markets. Growers may choose to sell their produce themselves, through cooperatives, agents or growers' organisations. Where the product is sold will influence a range of other factors, such as, which quality assurance system is needed, how product is packed, transport costs, quality specifications and payment options.
Selling direct to the consumer such at a roadside stall or farmer's market has the lowest costs and lowest number of constraints. Another option is selling to restaurants and other food service providers. Conversely the volume of product able to be sold to these markets is lower, demand may fluctuate and time needs to be spent on marketing and distribution not just production.
Selling direct to a retailer cuts out the middle-man and may be based on a contracted price so there is some surety of income. However it will also mean having to meet exacting standards, packing the product the way the buyer dictates and probably having to comply with an audited QA system. Retailers will also want volume and continuity of supply to service all their outlets. This may lead to penalties if obligations of volume and quantity cannot be met, rejected product having to be repacked for other markets, and leaves little option for taking advantage of higher-priced markets elsewhere.
There are wholesale markets in all capital cities and they are perhaps the easiest option for selling product. This can be done directly by taking out a market stall in the growers section of the market or by supplying an agent or merchant who will market the product for the grower. There are different requirements for agents and merchants and these can be obtained from market authorities. The wholesale markets can supply a list of agents or merchants. Some agents specialise in certain crops or regions and it is worth talking to range of them. It is important to have an understanding of payment policy, issues relating to unsold product or rejected product, QA requirements, packaging, and freight arrangements.
Fruit orchards have a high requirement for manual labour to carry out detailed management of the trees including pruning, training, thinning and harvesting. Nut trees require less manual maintenance and crops are harvested mechanically. The labour requirement varies significantly for different crops depending on picking frequency, pruning and training requirements. In choosing what crop to grow the level and frequency of labour needed to manage the crop should be taken into account. It is essential to have enough labour available to carry out key operations at critical production times.
Fruit and nut orchards have a range of machinery operations for slashing, weed spraying as well as spraying for pests and diseases. Nut orchards have fewer pests and diseases to manage and therefore require fewer machinery operations.
Post harvest / cooling requirements
Post harvest cooling and refrigerated storage of fruit is important to maintain shelf life and preserve quality and it is essential to have access to cool rooms to pre-cool fruit and hold fruit prior to shipment to market. Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CA) can be used to extend the shelf life of many fruits even further. A combination of adjustment of temperature (T), oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide (CO2) and relative humidity (RH) levels can extend the shelf life of fruit for up to 12 months. Typical figures for storing peaches require -0.5 – 00C, 2% O2, 4-5% CO2 and 95% RH.
Climate change and associated global warming will require management of the higher potential risk of sunburn, lack of chilling and water stress of orchard trees. Climate change may also increase climate variability and the likelihood of extreme events such as heat, hail and late frost. The impact of climate change on rainfall and the security of irrigation water supply is one of the key factors to consider for sustainable production of tree crops into the future.
Baxter, P. & Tankard, G. (1993). The complete guide to growing fruit in Australia. 4th Edition.
Mitchell, P. and Goodwin, I. (1996). Irrigation of vines & fruit trees. Agmedia Pubs.
www.apal.org.au Apple & Pear Australia Ltd.
www.australianalmonds.com.au Almond Board of Australia Inc.
www.chestnutsaustralia.com.au Chestnuts Australia Ltd.
www.depi.vic.gov.au DEPI website – Information Notes and other references.
www.fgv.com.au Fruit Growers Victoria.
www.hin.com.au. 1) Water Budget Models. 2) Best practice for establishing a walnut orchard.
www.hazelnuts.org.au Hazelnut Growers of Australia Inc.
www.australian-macadamias.org Australian Macadamia Society Ltd.
www.pecangrowers.org.au Australian Pecan Growers Association Inc.
www.pgai.com.au Pistachio Growers Association Inc.
www.summerfruit.com.au Summerfruit Australia Ltd.
www.vpaga.com.au Victorian Peach & Apricot Growers' Association Inc.
www.walnut.net.au Australian Walnut Industry Association.
This Agnote was developed by Harold Adem, Farm Services Victoria, April 2012 and reviewed in May 2013.
Published and Authorised by:
Department of Environment and Primary Industries
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