The apple situation in Chile
Recently I was invited to attend a seminar on the future of the apple and cherry industries in Chile.
The seminar was sponsored by the Pomanova group. This is an independent organisation consisting mainly of technical people involved in the fruit growing industry. It includes consultants, university teaching and research personnel working with tree fruit crops, company field representatives and progressive leading fruit growers.
The purpose of this seminar was to inform apple and cherry growers of the present situation of their industry, expose them to up to date growing techniques, forecast future production and the challenges facing them in regard to markets. It was a very interesting experience for me because of the contrast in the fortunes of the two industries. Apples there are a mature
industry in decline, whereas cherries are a booming industry undergoing a very rapid expansion. The cherries reminded me of our kiwifruit industry back in the 1980s.
This month we will look at apples.
As far as I can ascertain, apple area and production peaked around 2010 at 38,000 hectares, producing 1.624 million tonnes. By 2015, area has fallen back to 34,500 hectares, although there is some opinion that it could be as low as 30,000 hectares now and the forecast for 2020 is 29,000 hectares. Again, some are forecasting considerably less, perhaps as low as 21,000 hectares. Production in 2015 was 1.482 million tonnes of which about 700,000 tonnes were exported.
Gala (Royal Gala for us) is now their main variety with 15,000 hectares planted. The area in Gala is stable but as elsewhere there is a move to improved red strains.
Red Delicious has suffered a dramatic fall. In 2010 it occupied 37% of the planted area.
Among the apple varieties they grow, Cripps Pink is the variety best adapted to their growing conditions because it was bred and selected in a similar climate to the main production area in Chile. Most of the Cripps Pink plantings are the original strain, consequently while it yields well for them, achieving Pink Lady ® specification is difficult for them due to poor colour. The red strains, mainly Rosy Glow, are available but growers have been slow to re-work Cripps Pink to the red strains. This is because the performance of Cripps Pink is generally better than other varieties so priority is given to grafting them over, rather than Cripps Pink.
Red strains of the Gala group being planted include Buckeye (a dark red Washington strain which is too dark for us), Galaval, Jugala and others including Brookfield. Other varieties include Honey Crisp ® , Swee Tango ® , Envy™, Ambrosia™, Jazz™ and Kanzi™. The more heat sensitive of these varieties tend to be grown in the south. They are phasing out of standard Fuji, which used to be grown as a bagged product, aiming at the upper end “niche” markets in Asia. Chilean labour costs now make bagging Fuji a doubtful proposition. Their two main red Fuji strains are Rakuraku and Fubrax (Kiku ® ). Neither of these match our better coloured Fuji Supreme or Aztec.
CLIMATIC CONDITIONS MARGINAL FOR APPLES
Most of the Chilean apple production is found in the central valley between Rancagua in the north and Chillan in the south. This area
has a Mediterranean climate with cold, wet winters and hot dry summers. There are anywhere between six and 50 days between December and March with day temperatures exceeding 29°C for five hours or more. With global climate change, the incidence of hot days is increasing. Because of these climatic problems, a significant amount of the crop is unsuitable for packing.
As the number of hot days increase, it is probable that sunburn and colour problems will increase. High temperatures also limit fruit growth and for earlier harvested varieties lead to a second growth flush in the autumn once temperatures cool down. There is a lot of research in Chile going into methods for addressing these problems.
Reflective mulch, using disposable foil which is said to cost around US$50 per hectare is quite widely used to improve fruit colour. They have also done a lot of work with nets to reduce light levels. Black nets are used for Granny Smith. These nets are put out in the second half of November to minimise their adverse effect on fruit retention and cell division. For coloured varieties, grey net is considered the best, followed by white.
In their high temperature conditions, a lot of emphasis is given to ventilation and air movement under the net to prevent higher temperatures building up under the net. There has to be a good gap between the nets over the between row area to allow good air movement.
LABOUR IS BECOMING A HUGE PROBLEM
The fruit industry is finding it hard to compete with other industries for labour. Labour costs have also been rising
rapidly in recent years. Ten years ago, orchard wages were in the region
of US$2.00 per hour. Now they are around US$5.00 per hour.
It would appear they have not given much focus to reducing orchard husbandry labour costs. For example, the number of hours spent on winter pruning has not changed and summer pruning hours have gone up. Hand thinning times have gone down due to improved chemical thinning but they are still high by our standards. Most of the other labour tasks on the orchard appear to have increased. With the huge increase in labour requirement that is coming from the expanding cherry crop, referred to as the “red suname” for harvesting in late November through to early January, apples are under real pressure for hand thinning labour. Consequently, apple hand thinning is being delayed until after the cherry harvest which is January and early
February. Not the best time to be thinning apples in a hot climate.
Their labour force is becoming unionised which has the industry
In general, there is also a movement away from very labour intensive fresh market crops towards those where harvest can be mechanised. Nut crops such as walnuts and particularly hazelnuts. In the last few years, 20,000 hectares of hazelnuts have been planted between Curico and Talca and it is anticipated that this area will continue to expand towards 50,000 hectares. In the south, there is a trend away from labour intensive fresh market blueberries to processed blueberries than can be mechanically harvested.
As with New Zealand, there are a diverse range of growing systems to be found in Chilean apple orchards. The trend in recent years has been away from semi-intensive plantings on higher vigour rootstocks, towards intensive plantings on precocious dwarfing rootstocks, mainly Malling 9.
It is estimated that around 30% of the present apple area is poor performing and in need of re-development. These orchards are old, planted with poorly performing varieties or clones, such as poor strains of Royal Gala which fail to colour, standard Fuji, Red Delicious or Granny Smith and poorly colouring Cripps Pink. Many of these orchards are on MM111, MM106 or even seedling rootstocks. During the 1980s and even later, many Chilean orchards were planted on seedling rootstocks. Seedling rootstocks because of their tree to tree variability and susceptibility to woolly apple aphid present many production challenges.
Because their apple industry has fallen on hard times in recent years, redevelopment of these poorer orchards has been slow. The apple industry is short of funds for redevelopment, considered high risk, so where there are funds for redevelopment the preference is to pull the apples out and replace them with a more profitable crop, usually cherries.
Incidentally, pears and particularly kiwifruit are also in decline. The latter because of vine health and climate related problems. Psa has been a huge problem for them, even with Hayward due to the high levels of stress the vines suffer and winter chill injury.
The more progressive growers who see a long term future in apples are redeveloping their apple orchards. The goal is to lift production to 70 tonnes per hectare, export 70% of this production and achieve 70% of the export packout to be class 1 extra fancy.
Where existing orchards are suitable, grafting is the preferred option because it is a relatively low cost way of changing variety compared to replanting. Although grafting is a relatively low cost, my observation was that they were relatively slow to graft over producing Cripps Pink blocks to improved red strains even though packout of class 1 Pink Lady ® was relatively low at approximately 50% and becoming more difficult due to rising colour requirements. Usually their Cripps Pink blocks were their best performing apple blocks in regards to cropping so they were reluctant to graft them over, while they still had other poorly performing varieties to deal with.
Those with access to premium varieties, usually “club” varieties such as Honey Crisp ® (only in the south), SweeTango ® , Envy™, Jazz™, Kanzi™ and Ambrosia™, were redeveloping to these varieties. Other options were very high colour Royal Gala strains, e.g. Buckeye, high colour Fuji, Rakuraku or Fubrax and Rosy Glow.
As here, double or multileader tree structure rather than single leader was popular for grafting orchard redevelopment. The benefit of training grafted trees to multileader structure is that with this approach, it is possible to intensify a semiintensive moderate density planting.
As they have not had a lot of experience yet with many of these new varieties, only relatively small percentages of the
apple area was being changed to newer varieties. New plantings, as here, are on dwarfing, precocious rootstocks, usually M9. Some nurseries were propagating double leader trees and knipboom trees as well as the simple one year old single leader usually produced by our nurseries.
Typical planting densities for a spindlebush style tree planted as a well developed feathered knipboom tree are 2,200 to 2,850 plants per hectare or for a columnar tree, 3,300 to 4,100 plants per hectare. Bixis double leader trees would be planted at lower tree densities, perhaps 1,650 to 2,050 trees per hectare. Production from double leader Royal Gala was mentioned by one presenter to be in the range of seven to 14 tonnes per hectare in the second leaf which is considered quite good under their conditions.
Relative to New Zealand, the Chilean climate is marginal for growing apples bred in temperate climates due to the periods of high temperatures they have during summer. Sunburn and heat stress are big problems for apple varieties selected in our climate. Warm nights during the Royal Gala harvest period means that only the super red sports are giving adequate colour under their conditions.
Fuji has been a problem variety for them. It is harvested later in the autumn and as with Royal Gala, obtaining satisfactory fruit colour before fruit maturity advances too much for good post-harvest storage performance is difficult. Fuji often reaches high sugar levels before there is sufficient colour to harvest and if rain occurs prior to harvest when brix levels are high, cracking in the stem end cavity spoils many apples. At harvest and immediately after harvest, these cracks are not visible but after a few weeks of storage, they appear. This problem can be minimised if the fruit is able to be harvested before the autumn rains arrive or fruit brix levels have not exceeded 14°.
Fog in autumn, winter and spring is a feature of the central valley climate. Light spring frosts may also occur in some seasons. Fog in the autumn over the leaf fall period provides ideal conditions for European Canker infection. I have actually seen European Canker infection as far north as orchards on the southern edge of Santiago. This trip it was alive and well in one Scilate block I was shown.
Russet can be a problem with Fuji and Scilate. In the case of Scilate, russet can be a big problem in young orchards when most of the fruit is from auxiliary bud of one year wood sites. However, I got the impression russet continued to be an issue in older orchards too. This points to either frost or fog as the culprit. Data we have for New Zealand links increased russet incidence with fruit wetness approximately 15 to 25 days after full bloom.
The stressful high summer temperatures can increase biennial bearing in varieties prone to it. We seldom see biennial bearing in Royal Gala. In Chile, it is a much bigger problem and often occurs in Royal Gala as well as varieties that are more prone to it.
High summer temperatures favour bitter pit and lenticel blotch problems so these disorders will be a bigger problem in Chile than here. One well settled Scifresh block I saw still had 8% pit and blotch after a 26 calcium spray programme. Control of pit and blotch will be a real challenge for Chilean Scifresh producers.
This is an area where Chilean growers have dropped the ball. Some seven to 10 years ago, the fashion there was the Solaxe system. The aim of this system was to try and clear the area around the central leader to create what they called a “chimney” to allow light to pass through into the inner zones. The crop was to be carried on pendant proliferating branches on the outer tree canopy. These pendant branches became very complex with most of their crop hanging on weak pendant proliferating fruiting laterals towards the end of the branches. Yields were high, there was little problem with sunburn but as light levels reacted these fruiting zones were low colour and packouts were also low.
I did not see much evidence of the Solaxe system this time. They have moved back towards a conventional central leader/ spindlebush type tree with simple branches. At high densities greater than 3,300 trees per hectare, they are growing a cylindrical fruiting canopy made up of spurs and short fruiting laterals.
In their less intensive plantings, excess tree vigour appears to be a significant and costly problem. They do not appear to have mastered the art of vigour management well. The high vigour, as well as representing lost productive capacity, markedly increases their pruning costs which appear to be well above ours. Even so, I was shown some very well managed canopies too, particularly in some of the multi-leader grafted blocks.
There needs to be a lot more focus on tree vigour management, even in their intensive plantings. A lot of the vigour problem appears to be coming from their inability to grasp the need for a branch renewal programme to cycle branches out of the canopy once they begin growing water shoots instead of fruit.
To the many interesting presenters at the Pomanova seminar, June 2017 on the situation of the apple and cherry industries in Chile, who supplied much of the background information for this article.
Fig 1. About 30% of the Chilean apple area consists of old orchards with poor colour in need of re-development.
Fig 2. The “Solaxe” system. These trees are Fuji on seedling rootstock. Lower branches have been removed and now the tree canopy is made up of a few pendant proliferating branches. Note the clearing of buds and laterals near the central leader to allow light penetration into the centre of the tree. Most of the crop is carried on proliferating pendant wood towards the ends of these branches where light levels are low so fruit does not colour well. During the growing season, the very strong upper branches produce a forest of annual water shoots which need to be summer pruned out.
Fig 3. This is a picture of Sciros grown in Chile. Note the poor colour, sunburn and in particular, the cracking. This cracking is typical of the cracking problems found in Fuji there. Varieties selected in cool temperate climates do not adapt well to Chile’s harsh summer temperatures.
Fig 4. An example of a younger semi intensive orchard on MM106 being turned into an intensive orchard by grafting and re-configuring the canopy to a “V” system with two leaders each side. Fig 5. A young planting of Rosy Glow being developed as a double leader. Note the terminal bud fruit due to autumn flower fruitset. This is common in hot climates where trees suffer excessive heat stress mid growing season. The white trunk paint is to minimise sunburn injury to bark.
Estimates of the percentage of the crop diverted to processing in the orchard by variety are:
Clockwise from top left:
Fig 6. A three leader configuration. Note how the centre leader is beginning to overpower the other two leaders. This will give problems in the future.
Fig 7. A very vigorous 13-year-old Royal Gala block, planted at 1.3 x 3.8m. It is cropping at approximately 80 tonnes per
hectare. Note very high vigour in the upper tree.
Fig 8. Close up of the upper tree showing excess vigour problem. Cutting the leader back to the two-year-old upright shoot in the tree on the right would help solve this problem.
Fig 9. The same block as in Figure 7 after pruning.
Fig 10. A close up of the upper tree after pruning. Heavy branches remain with all of the strong shoot growth pruned off. They will have plenty more of the same next year. A better solution would have been to cut the strong branches off and leave a new vertical annual shoot to act as a single apically dominant growing point to take the vigour. Although higher, this will cause a lot less shade.