At Avowest’s Gingin orchard, seasoned avocado grower Alan Blight is drawing on science to help mitigate the wild card every farmer faces – the weather.
The pretty, 14 hectare block faces almost north and slopes gently down to Lennard Brook, where the orchard draws its water allotment. It’s almost the perfect location for sub-tropical avocado trees to flourish – bar the threat of winter frost.
With a career in avocados spanning 30 years Alan, who oversees production at Avowest’s Carabooda site as well as Gingin, has coupled his in-depth knowledge of plant science with technology to combat the disastrous results of below zero temperatures to his avocado trees. Not only does the frost burn the leaves, but a build up of ice can break branches.
The fruit of an avocado can spend close to a year on the tree – sometimes more than 12 months in cooler climates, so the loss of fruit to a weather event weeks before harvest is heartbreaking. To address the issue of frost burn, Alan has installed an overhead sprinkler system, which is automated to kick in at 0 to -1 degrees.
“We can handle frosts down to -3 degrees no problem. The water from the sprinklers freezes but releases heat to the plants as it freezes which protects them” he says. Extended frosts can still cause braches to break due a build up of ice, but the system has saved hundreds of young trees. “Overhead systems are used in different parts of the world, but are possibly unique to us here in WA,” he said.
Indeed the rows of 3 and 5 year old trees in the orchard look very healthy, lush and deep green and a close inspection near the trunk reveals an abundance of almost grown fruit camouflaged within the leaves.
With just 4 weeks to go until harvest begins, orchard manager Adrian Harley is busy mowing and tidying the rows, checking irrigation and paying close attention to the health of his trees. “Part of keeping the orchard viable is to keep at it! Really you’ve got to be active in observing what the tree needs,” he says. “Just being aware if it’s being choked by weeds, if it has a disease or if it’s been damaged by frost – you need to deal with things as they come up! You have to be really persistent and consistent.”
The majestic trees, which can reach up to 12 metres in height are pruned to a manageable 5m height to keep them under the protection lines. Even still harvest requires a cherry picker! All fruit is snipped by hand and goes primarily into the domestic market for the 2-month-long season.
While he is quick to point out that the orchard is not organic, Alan uses as many sustainable agricultural practices as possible. He uses biological control for pests and hires bees from local apiary Fewster’s Honey to assist pollination. A by-product of this last year was a unique avocado honey! “Strangely the honey was dark and heavy. I was expecting it to be light and creamy – like an avocado!” said Alan, who kept some for his own use at the end of the season.
Avowest is still planting new trees at their Carabooda site, and although Alan is anticipating an influx of fruit on the market will keep prices down, he is positive about the future.
“We’re looking to export more fruit this year. Last year we air-freighted around $100,000 worth into Asia, and there are significant opportunities opening up in Japan,” he said.
Australian production of avocados has doubled in the last decade, reaching an estimated gross value of production (GVP) of $557 million across the country. WA produces around 25% of total production – and most of our fruit is from the southern regions where temperatures are less extreme. Just a small fraction of fruit hails from the Northern Valleys and Hills regions!
“It takes about three or four years for an avocado tree to start bearing commercial crops and a lot of avocado trees have gone into the ground in the last five years, particularly in Queensland and WA, to keep up with the insatiable demand for avocados we have in Australia,” said Avocados Australia CEO, John Tyas.
While avocados on the trees at Gingin orchard look almost ready, Alan knows from experience that they need more time. Before harvest, Alan and Adrian will dry matter test the fruit for ripeness and quality, but as Alan says, “Taste is the best guideline!”
So whether you like them smashed on toast, sliced in a salad or whipped into a dip or smoothie, be sure to keep your eye out for some amazing locally grown avocados very soon — they may have even been grown just around the corner.