Huon Valley growers sweep excellence awards

Huon Valley growers sweep excellence awards

Apple and Pear Australia Limited (APAL) is Australia’s peak body for apple and pear growers and celebrates the outstanding achievements of seven of the industry’s most innovative and inspirational members every year in the APAL Awards for Excellence.

Three of the seven winners this year hail from the Huon Valley, acknowledging the Valley’s long history of orcharding excellence.

Howard Hansen, of Hansen Orchards in Grove, took out the major award, named 2020 Grower of the Year for his innovative approach to growing, and work in promoting healthy eating habits to Tasmanian children.

When Howard Hansen saw a 21-kilogram carton of red delicious return $8 while working in New Zealand in 1993, he knew the writing was on the wall for his own family’s predominantly red delicious orchard.

Upon returning to the family farm and beginning work full-time a year later, he set about diversifying the orchard with new varieties, new growing systems and new strategies.

And he hasn’t stopped doing that for the past 25 years.

“There’s been no one silver bullet where things began to work for us, just lots of stuff that has made incremental improvements over time,” acknowledges the fourth-generation grower.

“The strategy in the first instance was to be less reliant on red delicious and exports,” he said. “Royal gala and pink lady were available, so we started growing them.

“Our focus was getting out of the low-density plantings that were labour-intensive.

“We started planting our own nursery trees in 1994.

“New planting on more dwarfing rootstocks allowed for a lot higher density.”

It is important to examine the early stages of Howard’s time at Hansen Orchards, because it shows the trust in available research and willingness to experiment that has characterised his work through to today.

As well as being a pioneer of high-density plantings and club varieties in Australia, he has also led research and development by hosting Future Orchard trials on his own blocks, and testing the latest in production science and technology to improve fruit quality, harvest quantity, and pro- duction efficiency.

The commitment to making changes in the mid-1990s worked and, together with father Carl and the rest of the Hansen Orchards team, Howard has continued to develop new methods based on research and continued to reap the benefits.

Most recently, progressively higher-density plantings have been combined with a multi-leader V-trellis system, with those same old aims from 25 years ago of being labour efficient and maximising light interception.

After seeing the success of using rain covers over cherries in the region, Hansen Orchards decided to shift in the same direction for apples, by investing in hail-net and frost fans.

“We’ve also worked closely with a company called Ellips for grading technology and have recently updated both internal and external quality cameras and changed to high intensity LED lights to try and have a bit more accuracy on bruising and stem punches,” says Howard.

“Ahead of the 2020 harvest season we’ve in- vested in a couple of self-propelled platforms to assist with the labour efficiency, pruning, thinning and harvest.”

Howard is not the only Huon Valley grower to be recognised this year, with fellow orchardists Matthew Griggs (Young Grower of the Year) and Ian Smith (Lifetime Achievement award) also receiving accolades.

For Ian, the award pays tribute to his contribution across six decades to the Australian apple and pear industry.

R & R Smith has been producing quality apples for 130 years, and Ian Smith has been around for over half of that period.

Having taken over the reins of the orchard aged just 21 after the death of his father Ron, Ian has forged an extraordinary life and career growing apples at Grove.

Through contributions to research and development, and as chairman of the Australian Research and Development Committee (ARDC), as well as its Tasmanian equivalent, the Industry Advisory Committee (IAC), Ian has also helped make it easier for the generations of growers, from both Tasmania and Australia, who follow, to do the same.

As the 79-year-old explains, continuing to learn has been a passion for both he and his family.

“When I took over the orchard, I didn’t really know what I was doing. We just grew red rocks and green rocks,” he says with a laugh.

“Now we’re trying to grow quality fruit to meet consumer demands.

“We’re constantly sourcing information so that we can improve over time, and that’s been a lifestyle for me and my son, and one that we’ve really enjoyed.”

At the other end of his career, Young Grower of the Year Matthew Griggs is a regular face at APAL and Fruit Growers Tasmania research and development events, Matthew undertook the Masterclass in Horticultural Business at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture in 2019 on a levy-funded scholarship.

Committing eight to 10 hours every week from February to November isn’t the easiest thing for any 30-year-old to fit in, but Matthew said the course taught him a great deal.

“The scholarship was really, really good, I’m so glad I got the chance to do it,” he said.

A former Tasmanian Young Grower of the Year, Matthew said he was “very honoured” to receive the national award and he hoped to see more young people joining the sector.

“If we want an industry in the long term, it’s very important there’s young guys coming through,” he said.

“But there has to be a role people want to do.

“You’ve got to want to do it, and it’s got to be a viable career.”

Fellow 2020 Lifetime Achiever Batlow orchardist John Robson was also recognised for his lifelong support for the Batlow apple industry, while the industry’s female leaders were represented by Queensland’s Mira Milich (Marketer of the Year) and Sandra Ceravolo (Women in Horticulture award) from the Adelaide Hills.

The awards acknowledge the outstanding contributors who help shape and influence the apple and pear industry across all areas, from researching and growing through to marketing and exporting.

With the cancellation of the APAL Industry Forum in June due to the COVID-19 restrictions, APAL’s 2020 awards were announced in the spring issue of APAL’s AFG magazine out last week.

“The APAL Awards for Excellence recognise the tremendous contribution of each and every award recipient and are a wonderful reflection on the apple and pear industry’s progress, innovation and its people,” said APAL CEO Phil Turnbull.

“The awards are especially important in connecting our industry this year given the trying circumstances which we’re all dealing with.”

APAL is Australia’s peak industry body representing Australia’s $600 million apple and pear industry and promoting Australian apple and pear exports around the globe.