Jun 6, 2018Mr. Apple’s orchard plan hits the mark in New Zealand
Innovation breeds success in tree fruit production. A perfect example is the iPad orchard management system developed by Mr. Apple near Mangateretere in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand.
The monitoring system – called “Billy” because of its basic approach – allows for intensive orchard management on older apple blocks.
The International Fruit Tree Association’s 2018 New Zealand Study Tour featured stops at nearly 20 different operations, including Mr. Apple’s Close Orchard overseen by orchard COO Richard Hill.
“At Mr. Apple, we say ‘it’s all about the apple,”’ Hill said. “We believe if we do what’s right for the apple, and look after it, then that sets us on the road to success.”
On display was a more than 30-year-old block of Royal Gala on M.793 semi-dwarf rootstock. The proprietary software platform is used by in-orchard personnel with iPads that track production of a multitude of indicators.
Mark Anderson, technical manager for Mr. Apple, said the block routinely has four picks with yields around 100 bins to the acre, with an average packout of around 80 percent. Reflective foil ground material aids fruit color development despite the dense canopy with large branches that produce ample fruit.
“To meet our vision and look after the apple, we realize the key thing is having the people – extremely focused and motivated people,” Hills said. “Without them, we can’t do what’s required to look after the apple.”
Mr. Apple consists of 15 orchards in and around Hastings, Napier and central Hawke’s Bay. It has 78 orchards in total, broken into 15 sectors. At the Close site alone, there are six orchard locations.
The operation employs more than 2,200 people, 340 full-time staff and up to 1,600 seasonal workers.
In addition to standard varieties, Mr. Apple produces and sells Early Queen, NZ Beauty, NZ Rose, Diva, Posy, NZ Prince and Smitten.
“How we operate a business like this is we talk about bays,” Hill said. “In this particular orchard, there’s 52 bays of apples. In the Close sector, there’s about 156 bays of apples. Our whole business is about managing those bays on an individual business right through the chain of events to the customer.”
A bay is defined as an area of the same variety, same rootstock, same age and generally similar attributes, he said.
“What we’ve done over the years is benchmarking a lot of our bays on an individual basis to look at performance.”
He pointed to a Royal Gala orchard on different rootstocks of M.9. “What we’ve found with the benchmarking is that the performance of each of those individual blocks varies very significantly.”
“In the early days, it was quite normal to find 50 to 100 percent difference between the lowest and the highest yielding bay of apples,” Hill said. “We started to collect information about why that was, and started to improve our performance.”
“In those days, we used to wander around with about 10 or 15 folders,” Hill said. “We collected a lot of information about thinning, pruning, bud and fruit counts. We found that the more information we had on individual bays, the better we could tailor the recipe for that bay to improve performance. Adopting that strategy has really given us consistent yields and increasingly high yields.”
Separate, exact records
“We’ve taken it to the extent even of, when you go and look at our Royal Gala, on average we pick our Royal Gala four times,” Hill said. “In the last year, we’ve added maturity information that is on a bay-by-bay basis. We’re going out and taking two or three random samples to get a go at that for that particular bay. Then we’re taking a sample of each pick using that quarterly information to store the fruit in the inventory and pack it accordingly.”
Hill said each pick from each bay is kept separate right through the trucking, packouts, cold storage and into the market.
“If you see any of our product in the market – cartons or the trays or whatever – if you look at the end label, we can tell you from that which orchard it came from, which bay it came from, which pick it came from, and all the information relating to that bay is now here, in Billy.
“So instead of carrying dozens of folders, and looking up all of the information, it’s all at our fingertips here on the iPad.
“If you can imagine when you’re out there and you see good and bad things, and you try to work out why that is,” Hill said. “Having all of that information there has just been so important to us in developing the apple and doing what we say is the best for the apple to get the best performance.”
Hill acknowledged “there’s a lot of work that has gone into that, and we’re still developing Billy, even as we speak today. The latest things to be on Billy this year are we’ll be able to see how far along in the harvest we are, how far we are in the picking and packing of those particular bays.
“By focusing on apple excellence, Mr. Apple leads the market in terms of maturity harvesting testing,” Hill said. “Our apples are harvested only when they pass stringent maturity tests, including background color, brix, firmness and starch.”
Hill said accurate maturity harvesting is a key reason Mr. Apple apples last longer and store better with limited loss in quality.
“Our comprehensive, science-based approach means we are apple-led, not market-led, when it comes to making harvesting decisions.”
Top photo: Mr. Apple’s orchard operations are overseen by COO Richard Hill. Photos: Gary Pullano