Field visit: Small Italian farms punch above their weight in apple industry
It is not uncommon in many parts of the world to hear about the nightmare of coordinating a uniform and quality supply of fruit from large numbers of growers on rather small plots of land. In northern Italy though, this dynamic is the apple sector's advantage.
"We have very small farms, on average four or five hectares," says Paul Pernter of Beratungsring, an advisory service for 6,000 members in the region of South Tyrol.
"In this area [Unterland] there are wine grapes and apples too, so a typical farm is with 2.5 hectares of apples, and 1.5 hectares of wine grapes," he says, leading a farm and packhouse tour to on the first day of Interpoma, a biennial event held in the city of Bolzano and its surrounds.
En route to a farm in Bronzolo passing picturesque scenes of forests tinted hues of red and orange by the fall, castles on mountain tops and of course fields of apples and wine grapes, Pernter highlights the benefits of a cooperative system that has helped the region produce 1.1 million metric tons (MT) per annum.
Over a surface area of about 18,400 hectares with 8,000 family farms in total, this represents more than 9% of the 12 million MT produced in the European Union each year.
"We start at 200 meters above sea level and go to more than 1,000 meters above sea level," says the expert and sector coordinator for Unterland - one of the five main South Tyrolean valleys which also include Überetsch, Etschtal, Eisacktal and Vinschgau.
These are not the most Italian-sounding names, the reason being the whole area was part of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian empire until it was annexed by Italy in 1918. Nowadays 69% of the population are native German speakers, 26.5% identify Italian as their native language and the remainder speak the romantic Dolomite language Ladin.
Despite cultural differences, the region has been able to progress through a mix of tourism and agricultural productivity, mostly based on small farms operating through cooperatives.
"Cooperatives in my opinion work for the growers. In that way all the additional income goes to the grower," says Pernter.
"In periods like the last two years where the production in Europe of apples is very high and the incomes for growers are very low, in South Tyrol all the money from selling is going directly to the grower.
"When you have small areas for growers, you are not depending so much on foreign labor force, and a lot of the work in the orchard is done by the growers themselves; only during harvest time we have a lot of workers from Eastern Europe coming to us and they help us to pick all the apples."
Adapting to changing times
Pernter says much of the success has come through innovation, ever since M9 rootstocks were brought in from the Netherlands in the 1960s. Another important development was the implementation of overhead irrigation which not only serves to water the trees but also protect them from frosts.
"Overhead irrigation probably was invented in South Tyrol and we adapted this system very well to our conditions - the irrigation is managed by the growers themselves," he says.
"Each grower probably has four or five pumps in his orchards, and when there’s frost he has to go around and start the overhead irrigation."
"This year we had frost two times, on April 25 and then two days later again, and the second night was very heavy – probably we lost more than 10% of our harvest in this night; not especially in the lower part of our orchards but in the higher part," he says.
The Russian ban on European fruit exports has also taken its toll on the region, as well as the fact that its leading variety Golden Delicious has seen declining demand.
"In the coming time we will probably lose a lot of Golden Delicious, because in the last years they haven’t brought the acceptable income.
"In that way it’s necessary to have new varieties but the problem is we don’t see which variety we can have."
He says Gala is the second-most popular variety and is particularly popular in the lower parts of the valley, while in recent years grower have been planting very dark red mutants of the cultivar.
"Gala has an acceptable income so in that way the growers are still planting Gala, so we part of the ratio of Gala will rise again.
"The next important variety is Red Delicious, which is probably planted on 10-12% of our surface, and Red Delicious is very well accepted by the Italian consumers.
"But it's quite difficult to export in other markets so also that part will go down."
The region also has a "stable ratio" of Granny Smiths, which "until a few years ago were a really good variety because it’s very good in the field, regularly crops".
"But in the last two years we had problems with the export – a lot of our Granny Smiths were exported to Russia, and Russia will not now accept European apples.
"The next part in our varieties are Fuji – we have around 8% of our surface area planted with Fuji, and there is a lot of discussion about Fuji because it’s a very problematic variety.
"Fuji has the biennial bearing, and it’s very hard to have crops regularly and on the other hand you have to do a lot of hand thinning and also a lot of chemical thinning, so in that way it’s not easy to grow Fuji regularly," he says, adding that like Golden Delicious and Red Delicious, this variety will likely see a reduction in surface area.
After Fujis come the club varieties, which Pernter says have generated better incomes for growers, but the only problem is that being licensed cultivars the production is limited.
"In the last years we’ve planted a lot of Kanzi – it’s a very interesting variety with very good eating quality, and we are able also grow Kanzi here at the bottom of the valley, so it’s very interesting for the grower.
"In the higher part of our growing area we have for example Envy, and we started with Envy – it seems a very interesting variety but it is quite late.
"We harvested Envy at 800 meters above sea level two weeks ago so this year when the climate is quite warm it’s okay but at 800 meters in this time of the year we can also have snow sometimes, so it’s very dangerous to plant Envy somewhere where the harvest will be too late."
Another variety just starting off in the region is Japanese-developed Shinano Gold, officially launched with the 'Yello' brand name at the event itself, which Pernter describes as having "very good eating quality but also needs good management and is not so easy to handle for the grower".
Another key variety in the region is Australian-developed Cripps Pink - marketed as Pink Lady if it meets the right specs - which is one of the few crops still being harvested at this time of year, including on the farm we are visiting in Bronzolo run by grower Helmuth Hafner.
Field visit participants are impressed by the output of Hafner's fields - 90 metric tons (MT) per hectare at full production, and levels of around seven kilograms per tree in two-year old tree rows.
"Our opinion is to plant trees, the best quality from the nursery," says Penter, speaking on behalf of Hafner who would rather not speak in English.
"For us that’s very important, and then grow up tree volumes as quickly as possible and switch to production as quickly as possible," he says, adding there are around 3,400 trees per hectare in his orchards.
For a gallery of photos from the field visit, as well as to one of Grufrut Group (part of cooperative group Vog) packinghouses in Bronzolo, click here.
— Fresh Fruit Portal (@FruitPortal) November 24, 2016
— Fresh Fruit Portal (@FruitPortal) November 24, 2016