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Transformative power of embracing change

  • 3.5 min read

In Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, apples have been the crop of choice for generations, but the industry here and all across Canada has been undergoing an evolution.

To maximize returns, producers are transforming their orchards.

Orchards have given way to the new varieties: Ambrosia, Gala, and the new darling of the industry, Honeycrisp. The high-value cultivars have increased the farm-gate value of apples in the Maritimes by a whopping $9 million. To maximize returns, producers are transforming their orchards.

Moving to high-density production

“When I first started farming, we were dabbling with orchards that had 400 to 500 trees per acre,” says Douglas Nichols of Apple Lane Farm in Morristown, N.S., “we’re now approaching 900 to a thousand.” More trees mean that producers get into production faster, and those early apples start to pay off sooner.

Everything in the high-density orchard is innovative: dwarfing rootstock keeps the trees smaller and more manageable; GPS-directed planting means precise layouts ready for future automation; trellis systems maximize sun exposure and support the tree growth toward crop production rather than wood-thickening. Even patterns of labour shift with more streamlined trees.

Plan for the expense

“To put in one acre of high-density planting with trees, poles, wire and everything else that goes into it, you’re looking at roughly $35,000 to $40,000 an acre,” explains Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association based in the Okanagan Valley.

Because of the sizeable investment, shift in practices and potential risk of a new venture, it can be a stressful situation for producers used to weighing the pros and cons of each decision. Yet about 90 per cent of B.C.’s crop is now grown in high-density plantings and most of Nova Scotia’s new plantings are following suit.

Navigating change for your business

Any prospective change to the status quo brings the potential for anxiety and resistance, but you can brace your business for the inevitable. Follow this advice from the orchard on three ways to mitigate the challenges of change.

Gather perspective

There’s safety in numbers and a sense of security in community. Seek out the experience of peers when charting your course forward.

Working as a community is nothing new to orchardists – industry groups have long histories of sharing information on new threats and innovations. But what is new is the relatively recent expansion of those communities, partly due to the internet. “You can easily pull up a video of a high-density orchard, be it in B.C., Nova Scotia, Ontario, New York or Washington,” Dhaliwal says. “You can see … they invested a certain amount of money, and they got it back in three years.”

Set the right pace

Determining the right pace of change is key. While interest rates and government programs play a significant role, there’s no one-size-fits-all method to finding that sweet spot.

A sudden and seismic shift isn’t always best for every business. “We’re a family farm; our income arises from what we produce, and so ours is a much more gradual transition,” Nichols explains. “That way we can continue to get a livelihood, not incur a lot of excessive debt, and still modernize the farm.”

Plan for uncertainty

Dealing with shifting markets or extreme weather or a global pandemic – focus on the changes you know you need to make now and stay alert for your opportunity to make a larger change later.

“Labour is our number one cost and our number one problem to access,” Nichols says. With high-density plantings, mechanized equipment makes the work more efficient and orientation of the trees means platforms place workers precisely where they’re needed. In fact, many jobs have the potential to be less physically demanding, which is an important consideration for an aging workforce. High-density orchards layouts are perfect for robotics, even the sort not yet commonplace.

Apples may be a traditional industry, but in Nova Scotia plenty of young growers are entering and there’s a lot of farm succession underway. At Apple Lane Farm, that next generation is already getting their feet wet. Working alongside Doug and his wife Marlene are their daughter and son-in-law. “We’re encouraging them to look outside what we do now – the farm is evolving to work in our current environment,” Doug says.

And embracing change in your operation can be the start of building resiliency right into the fabric of your businesses.

From an AgriSuccess article by Emily Leeson.


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