Apples

24.05.17

Overview

Apples (Malus domestica) are one of the most widely grown tree fruits in the world and have been cultivated in Asia and Europe for thousands of years. The apple tree originated from Central Asia where its wild ancestor Malus sieversii, can still be found.

Apple trees are deciduous and can be grown as large trees (if grown from seed) or as smaller trees (if grown using clonal rootstock). There are more than 7,500 cultivated varieties of apples with a range of characteristics. Different varieties are grown for various tastes and uses, including eating fresh, cooking and juicing. Apples are also referred to as a pome fruit which is characterised by a core of several small seeds surrounded by a tough membrane. All pome fruits are members of the plant family Rosaceae which includes pears and quinces.

Australians consume around 8.9 kilograms of fresh apples per person per year and the majority of Australian apple production is for fresh fruit consumption with about a third of production used for processing into juice and other products. Australia is a minor exporter of apples with only 1% of production being exported overseas to the United Kingdom, Asia, New Zealand and Canada.

Apples are generally grown in the same regions as pears and have similar agronomic requirements. Apples are an autumnal fruit harvested throughout autumn. The apple industry is relatively stable in Australia, with almost all of production being consumed domestically. Combined, the apple and pear industry is the largest fruit industry in Australia worth more than AU$566 million at the farm gate. Organic apples are also a growing market with apples one of the highest volume organic fruits grown in Australia.

The representative body for apple growers in Australia is Apple and Pear Australia Limited who provide support to growers through providing tools and market opportunities to assist industry growth and increase competitiveness of both apple and pear growers. Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL) invests in and manages research, development and marketing programs for apples. Apples are a levied industry and HAL receives matched funding from the Commonwealth Government up to 0.5% of the industry’s GDP or the industry contribution which goes to funding for research and development.

Facts and figures

  • Australia produced just under 300,000 tonnes of apples in 2012-13 with almost all of this consumed domestically
  • Pink Lady is the most widely grown variety, followed by Granny Smith and Gala
  • Intensive orchard systems require planning and can have extensive establishment costs but can reach first commercial harvest within 1-2 years
  • Orchard grown fruit require reliable access to good quality water for irrigation

Production status

Apple production in Australia was just under 300,000 tonnes in 2012-13. Around 200,000 tonnes was for fresh consumption while the remainder went to processing and juicing.

The majority of apple production is in Victoria which produces about 46% of Australian production, followed by New South Wales at 15%, Queensland at 11%, Western Australia at 11%, Tasmania at 9% and South Australia at 8%.

The number of apple growers has declined since 2000 which is believed to indicate a consolidation where smaller scale growers are leaving the industry and medium and large scale growers are taking over their production.

Map of potential and current growing regions

Uses

Apples are most commonly consumed fresh and used in savoury and baked dishes. Juice and cider are also popular products.

Many beneficial health effects are thought to result from eating apples; however, two forms of allergies have been noted, caused by various proteins found in the fruit.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Apples can be grown in all states and territories of Australia but the main commercial production regions are:

New South Wales – Orange, Batlow, Hawkesbury

Queensland – Stanthorpe

South Australia – Adelaide Hills

Tasmania – Huon Valley, Tamar Valley

Victoria – Goulburn Valley, Yarra Valley, Bachus Marsh, Harcourt and Gippsland

Western Australia – Perth Hills, Donnybrook, Manjimup

These regions generally have mild summer temperatures, a cool autumn, and a cool to cold winter. Although there is generally reasonable rainfall, reliable access to water for irrigation is required to ensure the trees water requirements can be met at key times of the year.

Soil type

Apple trees prefer clay textured soils – clay loam, silty clay loams or sandy clay loams – with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.  Soils need to be free draining with a good capacity to hold moisture and nutrients.

Acidic soils will need to be amended with an application of lime prior to planting.

Climate

Apple trees require cool to cold winters and long, mild summers. The main apple growing regions in Australia have temperatures ranging from -2 to in excess of 45°C, however apples generally don’t like the higher temperatures.

Apples, as with many fruit trees, require a period of winter cold to break the tree’s dormancy which is measured at a certain number of hours below 7°C and referred to as the chilling requirement. The exact number of hours will depend on the variety, but apples generally require a minimum of 500-650 hours below 7°C. It is important to determine what the number of chilling hours is at the intended site in order to select the most suitable variety. Inadequate chilling can result in death of the flower buds, bud shed, erratic flowering, poor fruit set and poor fruit size. The Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria provides a chill unit calculator to assist with estimating winter chill units at a given location.

Frost just before to just after the blossom period can cause crop loss or damage. It is important to select sites that have sufficient air drainage; the bottom of valley floors and areas where dense, cold air accumulates are best avoided.

Excessive wind can also be detrimental to apple trees, causing damage to the tree, the crop and generally making it difficult to cultivate and train the trees.

Access to a water supply, such as dams or an irrigation scheme, is essential to provide consistently available moisture during the growing season to promote regular and heavy production. This is particularly important in semi-intensive and intensive plantings.

Varieties

Commercial apple trees are generally grown using rootstock and there is a large range of apple rootstock available in Australia. When sourcing trees it is important to understand the merits of the rootstock from which the trees were produced as they will have different tolerances to soil and alkalinity as well as different fruiting attributes such as size and maturing rate. It is important to source good rootstock and ordering trees from a reputable nursery about two years prior to planting may be necessary.

Some of the commercially produced varieties most commonly grown in Australia include: Cripps Pink (Pink Lady), Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Bonza, Braeburn, Delicious, Golden Delicious and Cripps Red (Sundowner).

Some varieties are grown specifically for apple cider and these include Break well’s Seedling, Brown Snout, Brown’s Apple, Bulmer ’s Norman, Dabinett, Improved Foxwhelp, Kingston Black, Michelin, Reine des Hâtives, Somerset Redstreak, Stoke Red, Sweet Alford, Sweet Coppin, Tremlett’s Bitter and Yarlington Mill. A range of French and English varieties have been rediscovered in Australia; for more information on these refer to the Primefacts note on Growing cider apples.

Variety selection is based on a number of considerations including: market demand (fruit size, colour, taste), suitability of the variety to environmental conditions (rainfall, elevation, temperature, soil type, chilling requirement), disease tolerance and resistance, and the intended market (fresh, processing, juicing). Beyond environmental and agronomic considerations, there are also business and farm profile/strategy decisions that contribute to the variety selected.

For more information on apple rootstock and varieties, refer to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries website pages on Apple rootstock identification and Apple varieties.

Planting and crop management

The apple industry in Australia has moved to intensive apple orchard systems that have a range of 1,500 to 4,500 trees per hectare and are planted on dwarfing rootstock. Intensive systems provide earlier commercial harvests (from the first year rather than the fourth or fifth), higher average yields and easier management. However, they do have higher establishment costs, higher maintenance of young trees and may require additional costs for infrastructure to protect crops from hail and birds.

 

Site selection is important for apples, as with all fruit tree crops. Factors to consider when selecting a site include: frost risk, aspect, wind and slope. Apple growing regions are often prone to spring frost and sites where cold air is unable to drain should be avoided. North facing aspects are preferable as they capture more sunlight and warmth. Windy sites can cause a number of issues including fruit damage and increased evaporation (thus increasing water requirements). Slopes of up to 12% will allow for drainage while still being able to manage soil erosion, however, slopes any steeper than this pose a major erosion risk and can make accessing the rows with machinery difficult. Sites that have previously grown apples may need to be treated with a chemical fumigant or pre-cultivated with a bio-fumigant crop (such as brassicas or mustard) to treat for Specific Apple Replant Disease.

Site preparation may include some or all of the following: installing an irrigation system; removing topsoil and applying lime if the soil is acidic (pH<6.0); cultivating the soil (rotary-hoe, deep ripping) and smoothing the surface; applying gypsum; and growing a green mulch crop (such as ryegrass). Apple trees require at least 60cm of topsoil for healthy root development and mounding of the tree rows may be required if the topsoil is less than one meter deep.

In an intensive orchard system, an example of a planting layout is four meters between rows, with one meter between trees in the row. If the ground is flat, row widths of three meters are possible which will give a higher density of trees per hectare. Trellis systems are used to support the trees and train the branches.

Apple trees require a range of nutrients and elements from the soil for productive growth and many of these are already in adequate supply in Australian soils. However, there are several that require management: nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, zinc, boron, magnesium and manganese. Fertilisers are generally broadcast or may be delivered through the irrigation system (fertigation). Soil and leaf analyses are recommended to assist with determining nutrient requirements. For more information on apple tree nutrition, refer to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Primefacts note on Apple and pear nutrition.

Irrigation needs to be managed to supply the tree’s root system with available soil moisture as the tree loses water through evapotranspiration. As such, the watering requirements will vary depending on the soil type, drainage and weather (temperature). Monitoring for scheduling irrigation is based on three methods: monitoring the tree, the weather or the soil. The use of a soil moisture monitoring system is common as it gives a direct measure of water availability to the tree at the root zone.

Apple trees require some pruning and if using a trellis system, training of branches along the wire supports. Trees need to be pruned to remove unproductive wood and manage vigour and growth.

Apple trees are self-infertile, that is, the flowers need to be pollinated by pollen from another apple tree (cross-pollination). To assist pollination, polliniser trees (often crab apples) are planted evenly throughout the rows. Pollination of fruit trees in Australia is reliant on honey bees and some farmers employ pollination services to increase the numbers of bees pollinating the trees and therefore increase fruit production.

For more information on establishing a new intensive apple orchard system, refer to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Primefacts note on Intensive apple orchard systems.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

The control of grass and weeds is particularly important for young trees when there is restricted root development. Young trees will suffer during dry periods if competing with grasses and weeds for soil moisture. Weeds are generally managed by mowing and spraying with herbicides.

The main pests that affect apple orchards in Australia are apple dimpling bug, codling moth, fruit fly, helicoverpa, lightbrown apple moth, longtailed mealybug, mites, weavils, aphids, thrips and snails. The main diseases that need to be managed for includescale, black spot, phytophthora root, crown rot, powdery mildew, apple mosaic virus, bitter rot, armillaria root rot, white root rot and Alternaria.

Most of these pests and diseases can be reduced or managed with the implementation of an integrated pest and disease management strategy which uses a range of tactics and measures for managing pests and diseases including biological, cultural, chemical, physical and genetic. A strategy will begin at planting and cover the full growth and seasonal cycle of the tree. Insecticide and fungicide treatments are the most common ways to manage outbreaks. Any chemicals used have to be registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) for use in apples and permits may be required; visit the APVMA website more information on specific pesticides and other chemicals.

For more information on pests and diseases in pears and integrated pest and disease management, refer toIntegrated Pest Management for Australian apples and pears, and the Department of Food and Agriculture Western Australia website page on Pome fruit.

Infrastructure Requirements

The infrastructure requirements for establishing an apple orchard are similar to those for other tree fruit. Factors to consider include location, water security, labour availability and the complexity of management required.

Basic infrastructure and operating equipment may include:

  • Trees
  • Irrigation infrastructure and controller
  • Tractors
  • Orchard sprayer
  • Herbicide sprayer
  • Slasher
  • Forklift
  • Bulk bins & bin trailers
  • Trellising
  • Ladders
  • Pruning equipment
  • Dryer
  • Netting (shade, hail and bird)
  • Machinery shed

Harvesting & Processing

Apples are harvested from January through to late May and the maturing time and therefore specific harvest period will depend on the variety. Apples are harvested by hand using seasonal labour. Pickers wear bags or sacks which when filled are emptied into crates or bins hauled by tractors.

Once picked, apples need to be placed into cool storage, between 0 and 1°C, as quickly as possible. Some storage facilities control the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels as well as the temperature to slow the ripening process. Some growers use Smartfresh™ inside the cool rooms to pause the fruit’s natural production of ethylene; this places the fruit into ‘hybernation’ until removed from storage.

Apples may be stored in bulk containers on-farm for a period of time or be prepared for market. The apples are cleaned and waxed and then packed and prepared for transport.

Markets and Marketing

There are a number of options for selling apples and farmers may choose to manage this themselves or sell through cooperatives, agents or grower organisations. The main options for selling are:

  • Direct to supermarkets (although this is quite limited may be a difficult market to access)
  • Direct to processors
  • Direct to restaurants or food service providers
  • Farm gate or farmers markets
  • Through wholesale or export markets

Selling direct to consumers (farm gate, markets, restaurants and food service providers) has the lowest cost and lowest number of constraints, however the volume that can be sold to these markets is lower and requires more time and knowledge to manage the marketing and distribution. Selling direct to supermarkets, often under contract, provides some surety of income but also requires the producer to meet a large number of strict standards.

Australia currently exports apples to a number of countries throughout the world including the United Kingdom, Asia, New Zealand and Canada. Although only about 1% of Australian apple production is exported, the industry is aiming to increase the combined apple and pear exports to 10%. Australia’s reputation for high-quality produce and ability to provide produce during the northern hemisphere off-season are considered the main advantages to driving export growth.

Risks and Regulations

Risks/challenges

For any tree crop there is a lead time from planting to the first commercial harvest and for apples this can be 2-3 years and there may be an additional year or two for planning before planting of any trees (for example, contracting a nursery up to two years prior to planting to grow trees from the desired rootstock).

The main production risks for orchard fruit production include: native animals (birds and bats), pollination, pests and diseases and climate factors (drought, frost, hail, wind and heat) which will impact fruit quantity and quality. Apples also have a natural tendency to biennial bearing, cropping heavily one year and lightly the following year.

The availability and quality of fruit on the market in any given season can substantially affect the price received. This can be influenced by new large plantings and climate or pest impacts in key growing regions. Understanding market trends and potential domestic and export markets is essential for planning size, variety and a management strategy of the orchard.

As apples have labour-intensive stages and there are periods where the need for casual labour peaks, in some regions, sourcing reliable casual labour can be a challenge.

Regulatory considerations

Apart from the regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety and transport (including machinery movements and the loading / unloading of harvested product), there are no regulations specific to apple operations.

Some producers of fruits and vegetables choose to participate in Freshcare, which is currently the largest Australian on–farm assurance program for fresh produce for on-farm food safety and quality and environmental certification services.

Publications

Publications/ information products

Intensive apple orchard systems – New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Primefacts Note

Apple and pear nutrition – New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Primefacts Note

Growing cider apples – New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Primefacts Note

Pollination Aware Case Study: Apples – RIRDC (2010)

Growing Organic Apples – World class production systems for new Australian apple varieties – RIRDC (2008)

Integrated Pest Management for Australian apples and pears

Other resources

Apples, Pears and other pome fruit – New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Pome fruit – Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria

Apples (pome fruit) – Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Pome fruit – Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia

Chill unit calculator – Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria

Freshcare

Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority