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:
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
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
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 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 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 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.
Lead time (years)
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 trees are adapted to a 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 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 of cold weather. 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 species and cultivars have different requirements for CU and the selection needs to be matched to the climate of the area to be planted.
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.
Steps recommended as a guide to setting up a new orchard
Salinity and sodicity
Fruit 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.
Over years of crop production and irrigation, many of horticultural soils may accumulate 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.
Table 2. Salt tolerance of horticultural crops (Source: Salt Action Salinity Calculator for Horticulture, 1999).
Soil salinity EC (mS/m) of the saturation extract
25% yield loss
Apple and pear
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 yield and quality. This can be achieved using pruning and training methods as well as irrigation management.
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.
Please visit the “Orchard irrigation” section of our web page for more details to understand the orchard irrigation needs.
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.
Please visit the “Tree training” section of our web page for more details on tree training techniques.
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.
Please visit the “Fertilization” section of our web page for more details on fruit tree nutrition needs.
Fruit 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 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. Some varieties are self-fertile and do not need separate pollinator trees.
You can find the pollination charts for different fruit species in our web page.
Integrated pest and disease management
All fruit 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.
Please visit the IPM section of our web page for more information.
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:
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.
Fruit orchards have a high requirement for manual labour to carry out detailed management of the trees including pruning, training, thinning and harvesting. 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.
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. To get more information about harvest and post-harvest fruit control, visit the post-harvest section of our web page.
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.
© State of Victoria, Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources
Reproduced with permission.