Trial orchard backs science application

Speaker tells conference that growing organic apples requires science, not 'muck and magic'.

Rigorous application of science is key to making organic growing of mainstream varieties of apple viable, grower Peter Hall told the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month.

Opening the event's technology and innovation session, the owner of HE Hall & Son explained that the motivation for the organic concept orchard based at his farm near Marden, Kent, is to "grow using science and technology rather than muck and magic".

The trial orchard was established in partnership with fruit supplier Orchard World in 2007 to show how yields of popular varieties such as Cox, Royal Gala, Braeburn and Bramley, as well as a selection of newer varieties, could best be improved. Cox has since been found to be unsuitable and dropped from the trial.

The 4ha site incorporates Dutch tabletop growing systems and single-row fruit walls, leading to a density of 3,000 trees per hectare. These are underplanted with red clover, which acts as both a habitat for beneficial insects as well as a green manure.

It incorporates trickle irrigation, computer-driven disease prediction and insect pest-mating disruption through pheromones.

"In purely financial terms, these systems make a lot of sense," said Hall. "It's difficult to see how nowadays you could farm any other way if you are trying to make a living. But you are better off having a small, intensive, successful system than to roll it out and make a mess of it. One slip and you're finished for the season."

Hall told conference delegates that he hopes the trial orchard "will also act as a test bed to develop technologies that can be rolled out to the conventional sector, to reduce pesticide inputs and improve crop protection".

He closed with a recommendation for future farmers: "For goodness' sake, learn the science when you're at school, university or wherever. That's the critical part."

Disease control - Weather poses challenge

Peter Hall admitted that "controlling disease has been a nightmare" thanks to last season's relentless rain, though scab had only been a problem on Royal Gala fruit.

"Yields were significantly better in both size and quality than we dared hope for," he said.

Braeburn, Gala and Estival tipped 40 tonnes per hectare, while a small area of Fuji yielded an "incredible" 77 tonnes per hectare, Hall added.

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