Very high apple and pear yields can be produced by well-managed intensive orchards. But they involve heavy investment and the right inputs - including irrigation - which has been more important than ever this season.
These were some of the pros and cons of intensive orchards that were discussed during a blossom and fruitlet walk on 11 May around Tony Sunnucks' Rankins Farm, in Linton near Maidstone, Kent - the site of Sainsbury's and OrchardWorld's concept intensive apple and pear orchards.
Sunnucks admitted that despite the possibility of the concept Gala's yield being more or less twice that of his 15-year-old semi-intensive Gala orchards, he is unlikely to plant intensively. This is because he has no natural supply of water, which is essential for the economic success of intensive orchards.
Visitors to the walk, organised by the NFU's Kent SW group and the Brenchley and East Sussex fruit discussion group, were told that the mains water supply used for trickle irrigating the concept orchards was very expensive. It was used because the orchards, though run as a commercial enterprise, are primarily for demonstration purposes.
Sunnocks' conventional orchards comprise 25ha of apples including Gala, Cox, Spartan, Bramley's Seedling, Worcester Pearmain and Discovery and 20ha of Conference pears with Comice pollinators, 8ha of Victoria, Marjorie's Seedling, Opal and Jubileum plums and 3ha of rhubarb.
The farm has a computer-controlled two-lane Greefa grader served by a dry-tip system with a throughput of 25 to 30 bins a day and 400 tonnes of cold storage. The rest of the apples and pears are stored in a controlled atmosphere facility off the farm - mainly by A&P Hill.
"We're looking to invest in stores and the packhouse in the next few years and then we'll need to grub and replant our older orchards," said Sunnucks. "Some of our pears are 30 to 40 years old and our plum orchards are the same, but we are able to regenerate these."
CONCEPT ORCHARDS ESTABLISHING OPTIMUM GROWING ENVIRONMENT
The establishment and management of the apple and pear concept orchards was funded by OrchardWorld. Both orchards cover 1ha, although another 1ha of pears is being planted. The trees are tied to hardwood "canes" supported by wire trellis stretched between concrete posts at 9m intervals. They are trained in a tabletop configuration at a height of 3m.
The apple orchard, planted in spring 2006, is mostly Cox, Gala and Braeburn on M9. The former is spaced at 1m by 3.25m and the other varieties at 0.8m by 3.25m, to give tree populations of around 2,770/ha and 3,470/ha respectively.
The pears, planted in spring 2010, are mostly Conference and a French variety, Delsan, spaced at 1m by 3.25m and supported like the apples. The Conference is on Quince C rootstock and the Delsan on Quince A.
The apple orchard's yield build-up is impressive: 20tonnes/ha for Gala and Braeburn in year three (2008), 30 tonnes/ha in 2009 and 40 tonnes/ha in 2010, and 60 tonnes/ha plus expected this year. Cox has produced 10-15 tonnes/ha less "but it looks promising this year".