Growing Innovation: Issue 14, August 31, 2016

Seeing the benefits of research

Kris Werner, Waikerie, SA

Kris Werner knows the dried tree fruit industry has had its ups and downs in recent years, but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for what he does, or his hope that new varieties and ways of doing things will have a big pay-off in the future.

“The small size of our industry, and the issue of getting compulsory levies paid, means our opportunities for research and development aren’t as big as other industries, but we don’t stop trying,” said Kris, who grows mainly stonefruit and is chairman of Australian Dried Tree Fruits (ADTF). “The industry’s main focus is the breeding program through the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), which is promising great things.”

In support of this work into new and improved varieties, Kris is growing 250 trial apricot trees on his four-hectare property in Waikerie, in the Riverland region of South Australia. “The trees represent four or five different breeding varieties – some as old as six years, some planted last year – and there are more to come this year,” Kris said. “By taking part, I’m trying to help weed out the bad varieties and help find the really good ones for both my property and for the industry, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Kris said he encourages other growers to get involved, noting that members of ADTF are entitled to contact SARDI to see if they can take part in varietal trials. “It’s like every industry – we’ve got to band together so research and development can actually do its part. It’ll benefit everyone in the long run, and those who do get involved could be three or four years ahead of the pack in knowing what works on their own property.”

Taking the risk with new varieties and growing approaches is so far, so good for Kris. “We’ve always been open to what’s new and really persisting with things. The first new apricot the breeding program put out in late ’90s was River Gem, and if it even smelt rain it would split. But I did persist with it and found a couple of tools that you could spray on before it rained that would save 80 to 90 per cent of the crop. I was in a very small minority of growers who went down this path and it rewarded me greatly – River Gems are a consistent cropper and a very tasty variety, and they got me through the drought. I don’t think our business would even be here without them.”

New and upcoming varieties – and turning to condensed planting – mean great things for profits too, Kris said. “With the new varieties we’re finding you can actually do the same amount of work for a greater weight of fruit, so you’re getting more income in the end. What we’re achieving is a large-type piece of apricot, without doing any thinning, with a greater drying ratio. So instead of getting a kilo of dried product per average-size tray of fruit, you’re getting a kilo and a half just in the meatiness of the product.”

Kris said that people who come out to his property to see the pedestrian orchard set-up (where the trees are shorter and closer together) are surprised at how different it is, but impressed by the benefits. “In the old-school way of planting you’d have a tree every six by six metres. Here we’ve got that down to a tree every three by two-and-a-bit metres. So now what happens is if one tree dies you only lose a little bit of your production, whereas if your trees are hugely spaced out you’ve lost a lot of ground. We got into this condensed planting about eight or nine years ago, and it also makes it quicker and easier to harvest,” Kris said.

“My hope is that those who persist and take the risk with what’s new will be rewarded down the track,” Kris said. “I’ve been in the industry all my life – from a very young age I was cutting on my uncle and grandparents’ stonefruit property and having this business since 1993 has kept me out of mischief – and I want my children to get to experience that too. One of my older kids plans to take over the family business eventually, and we have a nine-year-old who’s getting into cutting now.”

For businesses to be sustainable, Kris said there was also a need to think ‘fruit salad’. “I think the days of a single enterprise operation are just about done and diversification is what it’s all about,” he said. “You’ve got to have three or four strings in your bow so you have some sort of back-up plan.”