Future to include shorter trees and robots

Rain covers, dwarf root stock, driverless tractors, drones and UFOs are the way forward for New Zealand's fruit growers in the next 10 to 15 years, Michigan State University's horticultural professor, Dr Greg Lang says.

Dr Lang specialises in cherry production and was a keynote speaker for the Summerfruit New Zealand conference, which was held in Central Otago earlier this month.

Dr Lang was delighted to be back in New Zealand as he had spent about six months here on a sabbatical about 10 years ago.

''I have seen a lot of old faces, and have been bringing them [growers] up to speed with what we have been doing,'' Dr Lang said.

''The organisers asked me to look out to about 10 to 15 years from now.

''What would cherry trees look like and what technology would be used.''

He said cherry production had changed dramatically in the past 25 years and plantings continued to increase world-wide as demand and new technology made them less risky to grow.

He said dwarf root stock meant shorter trees, which made harvesting easier, with some varieties fruiting earlier.

UFOs (Upright Fruiting Offshoots) or fruiting walls or hedgerows, would also make harvesting easier as trees were grown along wires, similar to grape vines, he said.

Pickers could access the fruit more easily, and the design also encouraged a narrower canopy and better light distribution, with increased uniformity of fruit.

''There is less cost for pruning and picking and it is easier to put covers over to protect them from the rain.''

Increased mechanisation would reduce labour costs, and future growers would require fewer workers for the menial tasks.

There would be driverless tractors, as well as robots and drones that would have vision sensors, which would identify fruit that was ready to harvest, or had rot or blemishes.

''Labour can be quite short during harvest time and workers will prefer to go to an orchard where it is easier to pick.

''If robots take over some of the menial tasks out of fruit production, there will be fewer people to pay but growers will be able to pay them a better wage.''

Drones can chase birds away from the trees and identify diseases or insect infestation, water requirements and nutritional deficiencies.

Climate control, using high-roofed tunnel houses, could also add extra value out of the orchard by shifting ripening times to meet the Christmas market, or extend the end of the season.

''The New Zealand industry will continue to reap benefits of adopting new technology and continuing to maintain their high quality products.''

He said Chile produced one of the highest tonnages of cherry crops in the world and what it did in the market affected New Zealand growers.

However, he said New Zealand did have an advantage.

There was a strong and growing demand for cherries in the South East Asian markets, and while Chile took six weeks to ship its product to those markets, New Zealand was able to send high quality fruit there in only a day or two.

''New Zealand needs to do anything it can to maintain its marketing advantage.

''Consumers will pay very good money for very good cherries,'' Dr Lang said.

- yvonne.ohara@alliedpress.co.nz