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Ongoing project

Advancing sustainable and technology driven apple orchard production systems (AP19003)

Key research provider: The Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions

What’s it all about?

This investment is improving crop load management different climates across Australia’s growing regions by providing the knowledge and tools needed by the apple and pear industry to consistently deliver fruit that meets market specifications.

It is establishing research trials and demonstration sites at the experimental Sundial Orchard at Agriculture Victoria’s Tatura SmartFarm, as well as in commercial orchards, to help take this information to growers. The unique Sundial Orchard conditions, with different light incidence and exposure throughout, will allow this project to investigate the effects of fruit/leaf position and sunlight exposure on fruit quality, floral initiation, photosynthesis and stomatal conductance.

Specifically, the project is:

  • Investigating how fruit position and light exposure impact colour development, sunburn damage, floral initiation and fruit quality
  • Exploring the physiological mechanisms (that is, the chemical signals) involved in the impacts of high crop load on floral initiation and flower development, and subsequent fruit size
  • Developing a rapid orchard assessment tool using sensing technologies to determine crop load for optimum fruit size in apple orchards.

This project is part of the PIPS3 program for the apple and pear industry (the third iteration of the Productivity, Irrigation, Pests and Soils program). The other investments that make up this scope of work are:

The work done through this project, and the PIPS3 program, will be communicated to industry extensively through the levy-funded National apple and pear industry communications program (AP18000) and Future Orchards program Delivery of apple and pear Future Orchards extension program (AP15005). You can sign up to receive industry communications at  

Approximately 40 growers and industry stakeholders participated in a field day at the Tatura SmartFarm in late November 2021. Several visitors were also hosted in the previous six months including fruit growers, APAL staff, scientists, government officials, Ag Tech companies and school and tertiary students.

Results from the crop load experiment showed that fruit number of individual leaders (i.e., tree segments) is the main factor affecting the return bloom on the same leaders in the following season, indicating a localised chemical signal response as opposed to less localised carbohydrate translocation impacting on fruit quality. Preliminary results on testing of organic metabolites suggest that gibberellins and members of the phenylpropanoid pathway are involved in the regulation of return bloom and, more generally, alternate bearing in ‘Ruby Pink’ apples.

Validation of data generated using Green Atlas Cartographer corroborates the promising findings obtained in 2020–21. Predictions of flower and fruit numbers and yield were very accurate after initial calibration and errors were lower than 5 per cent. In addition, uncalibrated relative spatial maps provide a good tool to support management decision making. A combination of canopy geometry (density and height) data obtained using Cartographer was shown to accurately estimate light interception in apple orchards and relationships with estimates of flower cluster number and fruit number were published in Computers and Electronics in Agriculture.


Read an industry article on sensing fruit in apple orchards that was submitted to the Australian Fruit Grower magazine, winter 2022.

Watch three videos that provide project updates and relevant information:

Over the past six months the team have progressed activities.

  • Twenty-three field visits were carried out at the Tatura SmartFarm between July 2020 and May 2021 despite complications caused by COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Results from a previous study (project AP15013), in which Rosy Glow trees were subject to a diverse range of crop load treatments over five seasons, showed yield increases but decreased fruit size and quality, delayed fruit maturity and a decrease in return bloom with increasing crop load. Exploratory analysis of organic metabolites and their response (i.e. up- or down-regulation) to crop load levels in buds and leaves of cultivars Rosy Glow, Nicoter and Ruby Pink showed consistent significant changes of bud flavonoids in response to crop load.
  • Initial testing, calibration and validation of the Green Atlas Cartographer mapping tool found promising results for its flower cluster number, fruit number, yield, tree size and light interception predictions. Fruit number and yield estimations were compared with commercial grader data at harvest. Tree size and geometry data obtained with Cartographer’s LiDAR sensor was closely related to light interception measurements obtained with a light trolley. Data collected by Cartographer (after calibration and validation) showed that increasing EAS led to higher flower cluster number, fruit number and yield. Spatial distributions were reported in user-friendly orchard maps.


Read this article from the team about Advancing apple orchard production systems, published in Australian Fruit Grower, Autumn 2021 edition, pp40-41

Watch this commercial orchard crop load experiment video prepared by the team as part of the PIPS3 program (6 mins)

Initial planning of the project delivery is underway, and outputs have been distributed including:

  • An article and video introducing the project, it’s key objectives for industry and the activities that will be undertaken was written and submitted on the APAL website online.
  • Another video has been produced which describesthe Cartographer™, the mobile sensing platform developed by Green Atlas to measure orchard parameters. 

Related levy funds

This project is a strategic levy investment in the Hort Innovation Apple and Pear Fund