Ecohorts Blog

Reflections on Italy Study tour with IFTA (November, 2014)

Posted in Study Tours by Administrator on the December 5th, 2014


Firstly, I must thank IFTA and Dr.Terence Robinson for leading such a wonderfully well organised study tour to South Tyrol. It was ten days full of tours to nurseries, orchards, research facilities, packaging facilities, cooperatives, site-seeing and Interpoma. Every day was filled with eight hours of pure knowledge with this highly experienced family of IFTA growers and scientists, extension specialists primarily from USA, Canada and the host country Italy.

Perspective: Why people flock to Italy to learn apple growing? The answer is they have one of the highest average crop yields in the world. It is no secret that with approximately 18,000 hectares, South Tyrol produces as much apples as we produce with over 200,000 hectares. The high productivity is not because they have giant farms with monster machines and economies of scale; it is quite the opposite. The size of most apple orchards’ in South Tyrol is about two to three acres (10 to 15 Bighas of Shimla). The small holdings, global competition and threat to their economy and livelihood inspired them to new heights of “precision Apple growing” in a cooperative way. This is something that inspired me most and instilled a belief that we can also be world beaters, if we continue to evolve our methods and learn from best practices. Climate wise, Northern Italy gets about 300 days of sunlight and around 150 to 200mm of rain. There is no way I can download all we discussed, shared and learnt during the trip in this small blog but there are a few insights or conclusions from which fit our own apple industry in Himachal. A few important ones are noted below with no particular order of importance.

1. Growers’ Cooperatives: The key to success of this small apple growing region, with small land holdings, is collaboration through “Cooperatives”. Cooperatives ensure the brand of “Suditrol” apples flies very high. The collaborative culture evolved because of the hardships (labour, competition from Europe) faced by apple growers in 1970s and 1980s. Farmers’ cooperatives receive some incentives from the Government and they manage the entire supply chain and marketing for member growers. Farm incentives are only given to cooperatives and not individual growers, therefore keeping people together and interested in collaboration. The Government’s policy framework around cooperatives is worth researching /adapting for Himachal Pradesh and may prove to be a game changing step that a Government can possibly implement. Cooperatives on the pattern of Italy with latest grading packing machines will improve postharvest handling of fruit and control fruit supply (avoid glut) and reduce the orchard operating costs for growers. An example: It is much better to install cooperative CA stores with high tech grading, sorting and packaging machines than buying (manually hammered iron) individual grading machines that cost much more collectively to the growers, when all collateral costs are added up e.g. building individual packing houses by individual growers. This act of individualism does not only spread the scarce resources too thin; it gives us much poorer product for which we will be competing with the best in the world in a few years.

2. Nursery trees: Foundation of a commercially successful orchard: As you sow, so shall you reap is as true for apple orchards as it is for any other crop. The only difference is that our “seed” is the nursery plant. The nurseries in Italy supply highly feathered (branches) trees. A minimum of seven, ten inch long, branches in addition to several small feathers with flower buds at the end are the most common. The best of whip trees, we plant in Himachal Pradesh currently, take about three years to reach the shape and size of nursery trees available in this part of the world. The key advantages are:

  • Agility: In fast and dynamic market of the west, (fast approaching us in India as well), excellent nursery trees provide a means to change varieties quicker and take the early mover advantage in the marketplace while others still catch up.
  • Enables fast Orchard Renewal: Most of our old orchards lack a bold and structured renewal programme. A common fear of yield loss if we take out big old tree and the anticipated ten years to get that yield back from the replacement is a major deterrent. As a result growers are continuing with old trees with dropping yields and quality well beyond their useful economic life.
  • Enable high density and low intensity orchard architecture: The most important ingredient to setup a high density/low management intensity orchard is a highly feathered nursery tree that can be trained to modern low-tech training systems and rewards the growers with its first crop in third year.

3. Nurturing the orchard: Trees in first year (first leaf) are planted on M9 rootstock. A permanent support structure with supporting wires (trellis) is installed to take the fruit load. Drip irrigation and Fertigation is integral part of the orchard setup. Tree and fruit development, both need water and nutrients at proper time and precise quantity. The precision of nutrients is the differentiator between highly productive and ordinary orchards. First four years of orchard life are important for structure of tree; therefore, summer pruning and high concentration of nutrients is required in the initial years. Winter pruning is avoided as it turns the tree vegetative and very aggressive. In later years fertilizer application is reduced. On more mature trees, chemical and hand thinning is regularly performed, in addition to bloom thinning with tractor mounted apparatus. Leaf analysis is done after fruit set to ascertain the nutrient level and further addition via Fertigation is based on this analysis. Proper fruit maturing testing for ripening and harvest dates is strictly followed. Delicious group apples are sprayed with Promalin, which improves the elongation of fruits resulting in an attractive length and diameter ratio. Diseases like Codling Moth and Fire blight are a constant challenge in addition to scab. Irrigation water in the flat land is drawn from the sub soil. In hilly zones, irrigation water comes once a week and time hours per farmer are set. Extensive weed management programme in commercial orchards and nurseries is followed. Mulching was commonplace with grass, chopped pruning waste, pine bark too were some materials seen in various orchards.

4. Mechanisation on slopes: Labour shortages had a positive and innovative effect on the South Tyrol farm economy. A great range of innovative machinery has been developed for small farms. A definite eye opener was the use of small and customised machinery (small continuous track machines with various extensions and/or platform) that was being used on steep slopes to spray, harvest and prune the orchard. In some ways this is good news for our growers as we are a fast developing economy, where rural labour will increasingly be in short supply as we compete with urban centres for labour. Pruning machines (coupled with fruit wall architecture) have dramatically lowered technical labour costs as bloom thinning, summer and winter pruning becomes increasingly mechanised. This also proves the simplicity of new orchard architecture, which we can use.

5. Harvest and Post-harvest: Harvest is carefully controlled to avoid glut conditions in the market. Retain, a chemical that inhibits ethylene, is used to delay harvest is in use. Fruit is tested for accurate maturity/harvest date and refractometers, pressure gauges and starch testing is required before harvest. Harvest date is finalized by the cooperative marketing experts, after proper test of total soluble solids and fruit pressure. Harvested crop is graded at cooperative grading, storage and packaging facilities. The growers must send their full harvest to their cooperatives only. Big bins (300 KG large crates) are supplied by the cooperative to farmers and used to harvest and transport apples to packing facility. Apples pass through quality testing for size/colour and the details are recorded in the growers account. After pre-cooling the fruits are moved to the controlled atmosphere storage with huge capacity to store. Supply to local market, European Union countries and others e.g. Russia is done via refrigerated ground transport. The fruits being shipped are still as fresh as harvested from the trees.

6. Diversification: Tourism and viticulture are the other equally big professions of growers. Small (local architecture) hotels and grape vineyards in South Tyrol are as common a sight as apple orchards. The name of the game is to NOT keep all your eggs in one basket and diversify income stream. Italian wines are world famous and exported worldwide. Growers collaborate (through cooperatives mostly) with experts, who provide advice on grape varieties for the farm after extensive soil testing, water quality testing, micro climate analysis et al. This follows advice and wine making consultancy from experts who are well known in the market. They help in developing vineyards, developing flavour of wine and marketing of wines. This is an area of potential economic boom for our region. As our middle class increases and drinks much more of the higher end wines, we are in a unique climate zone to produce excellent grapes and boutique wines. We also, noted that Red Love (a red apple with blood red flesh) is becoming hugely popular and used to make red coloured apple champagne.

Due to the natural beauty of the area and well developed ski resorts, tourists from all over the world flock to the area. However, the natural beauty is preserved because no construction is allowed anywhere without prior permission and there is no concrete to be seen. The homes and hotels have to be in local architecture. It all gels with local heritage and environment.

The key learning for me was that if done correctly, we can keep making a good living, preserve our unique way of life and yet can protect our environment and pass it to our next generations.

On a cautionary note, I must say that with globalization we have higher risks. The present and imminent one being fire blight and codling moth. India and its citizens need to comply with a strict quarantine regime to avoid importing these industry threatening problems to our apple industry. In Italy they completely wipe out a nursery or a site if any of these diseases appear. A point to note is that all delegates throughout the trip mentioned the opportunity Indian market provides. I heard stories about how everyone plans to encash the huge Indian market, which is very under-supplied from local apple production.

In conclusion, it is a reality check for us. Can we catch-up and stay one step ahead of the competition? What do we need to do? Looking at the quick wins for us, here are some thoughts we should start to work towards as growers, society and Government:

  1. It is high time our nursery practices catch-up with rest of the world and it is not complicated at all. We need a head start to transform our orchard landscape.
  2. We should not be afraid of higher density and low management intensity orchards and try them on portions of gentle slopes to develop our own best practices.
  3. Cooperatives have come and gone in India but they need to come in another Avatar. We need economies of scale to compete in the supply chain of apples. The competition will only become fiercer. In 2014 season, first time, Washington apples were still shipping to India during our apple season. Sign of things to come.
  4. Diversification should be on the cards – be it viticulture or tourism we need to take advantage of our unique location in our country.
  5. Prepare for mechanisation – this is not short term fix for us as it will only make our operating costs higher than our current methods but with labour shortages we need to start designing our future orchards in a way that we can make the switch at the opportune time.
  6. The Government has a role to play in all this. I highly recommend that the government sponsors a study of the cooperative framework in South Tyrol and think longer term to create a climate of innovation by making collaboration attractive to people. The Government should not be in the business but an enabler of the business. Road infrastructure goes without saying.
  7. Lastly, as citizens and growers, we don’t need to go to the brink of extinction before we get together, we should do it now and make it hard of competition in supply chain to settle in.
Lakshman Thakur Chairman, Himalayan Eco Horticulture Society

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