It was an ambitious plan to save water – and get a better price for their fruit – that prompted the Arnold brothers of Pyap to seriously investigate netting as an on-farm innovation.
In 2015, Ryan, Michael, and Tim purchased the family citrus orchard from their retiring parents, and were keen to put their stamp on the 100-hectare property, located about 260 kilometres north-east of Adelaide.
“Data from our packing shed was showing us that a lot of the fruit in Class Two wasn’t even paying its way to be picked and it was a result of wind blemish,” Tim said.
“At the time, the difference between Class One fruit per tonne and Class Two fruit was around $800.”
Tim said it was clear they had to find a way to protect the fruit while it was the size of between a marble and a golf ball, when it could be easily scarred.
“If a tree gets blown by the wind, it doesn’t take much of a rub for that fruit to be damaged and for the fruit to grow with a scar that will knock it down from a Class One to a Two, and the price drops dramatically with that downgrade,” he said.
“That’s where the netting idea came to us.”
A farm visit in Victoria’s Sunraysia region convinced them of the benefits to be found with netting.
“I have to say, the trees we saw under netting at the property were not the most amazing looking trees I’ve ever seen,” Tim said.
“They were pretty rough and sticky but the fruit: the fruit was really incredible.”
And, on learning about the estimated water savings of between 20 and 30 per cent, they returned to SA with renewed enthusiasm, and successfully applied for a $1.4 million grant in Round One of South Australian River Murray Sustainability program (SARMS).
They became one of the Riverland’s first netted orchards – and the brothers could not be happier with what they’ve achieved to date with their 20-hectare site of oranges and mandarins, safely sprouting under cover.
They are also sharing their experience as part of a three-year research study*, being conducted by University of Adelaide, to help grow the information available to producers about netting.
“We had searched and searched for information [about netting] but there wasn’t a lot around,” said Tim.
“The top part of the net is called 20mm quad – a square shaped mesh that doesn’t give the trees too much shading but it does offer excellent protection from the wind.
“They were quite young plantings when we started off in 2015 but they’re delivering big yields, 50 to 65 tonnes per hectare year on year, which is quite unusual.
“Usually you’ll have a year on and a year off for the big crops but the big yields are being sustained annually so we’ve needed to hire more pickers for the fruit.”
As part of the study, a second weather station had been installed in the middle of the netted orchard to measure the difference in wind speed and evapotranspiration – the movement of water within a plant and the subsequent loss of water as vapor through stomata in its leaves – inside and outside the net.
“Wind speed is involved in the process of evapotranspiration and because the wind speed under the net has effectively halved, evapotranspiration has reduced by around 30 per cent,” he said.
“The quality of the fruit from the yields we’re achieving plus the water savings have exceeded our expectations plus, we’re returning more value for the water we use.
“We’re not using water to grow fruit that’s worthless and we’re really looking forward to seeing the results of the study when it wraps up in around September.”
In the meantime, there’s plenty to keep the brothers busy.
The brothers also used part of the SARMS grant to investigate the development of a new value-add product – a lemon cooler.
Production of their Arnold Brothers-branded alcoholic lemon cooler has since stepped up from 600 cartons to 1,800 cartons per year.
The citrus and grape cooler is made from their own produce and the marketing is driven by the Arnold Brothers’ fun yet cheeky vibe.
“It gave us an avenue to do more with juice of our lemons and add value to it,” Tim said.
*The University of Adelaide Research project is supported by the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Natural Resources Management Board, through funding from the NRM levies and SARMS.
SARMS is contributing to the South Australian Government’s commitment and implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The 3IP grants program is supporting the sustainability of South Australian River Murray communities through investment in irrigation efficiency, water returns and irrigation industry assistance.