CHANGES IN THE APPLE INDUSTRY
Last Thursday, my brother Maurice, who left here and has lived at Murray Bridge, for the last fifty years, came down here for a visit. I took him for a drive around the district and he was amazed at the changes that have taken place in such a short time, so thought that perhaps I had better record it for future generations while I still remember it .
When I left school in 1944, Dad was getting about eight shillings, (80 cents), a bushell case for apples, and was paying the pickers eight shillings a day, so that meant that a case of apples would pay for a man’s wages for one day. I just phoned my nephew to get the correct figures for now, and he told me that growers are now paying their pickers $22 per hour, ($176 for an eight hour day) If it is a holiday, they have to pay double, $44 an hour, and so they now cannot afford to pick apples on public holidays.
At the present, he told me, growers are getting $2 a Kilo for Royal Gala. apples, so that is $28 for a carton of apples. ( I think that the growers today would be very happy to get $176 for each case, equal to a man’s wages for the day). It was a struggle for Dad when he was getting eight schillings per case and paying that for the day’s wages.
Now here are the changes that have had to be made to cover this situation. Well Dad only had a small orchard and produced only about 5000 bushels of apples. He also grew vegetables but was able to care for a family of six children with income derived from that (though much lower standard of living than today). He was growing apples in the 20’s,30’s,40’, and 50’s. I had my own first orchard in 1959, and was producing about 15000 cases of fruit, but that gradually increased, and when Greg became old enough and came into partnership with me we built up to about 30.,000 bushells per year to make a reasonable living for our families. By the year 2000, he had sold his orchard interests and gone into the beef industry, so by now, they may have to be growing up to 45000 to survive. Also, over the years we have had to become much more efficient and reduce our costs of production. To do this this we have had to drastically reduce our labour costs by introducing “drive past” spraying machines, by using “bulk handling”of fruit in bins with tractors with hydraulic lifting equipment, and greatly improved irrigation.
To explain this, and the great need for increased efficiency, was that we were having to compete on world markets such as London and Singapore, in export against fruit from Argentina, where they were paying labour costs of about $ 50.00 a month, (cheap labour) and even then in 1980 we were paying $120 dollars an hour, so we had to reduce the amount of labour used. In irrigation, having to shift portable irrigation lines every day, was very labour intensive, so we installed permanent polythene lines down every row, with a mini sprinkler by every tree. This meant that we had to only turn on pumps and wheel valves, so a huge saving in labour costs, and now could even turn on sprinklers on very hot days to cool the area around the tree and so reduce sunburn.
Also no more ploughing and cultivation of orchards, but grassed and mowed land with greatly improved nutrition by fertilizers and soil management. We have reduced our chemical usage by using more natural methods, such as making use of the natural enemies of the insect such as “predacious mites” We also halved our picking costs by reducing the size of our trees, and thereby keeping the pickers on the ground. Soon found that having them climb up and down ladders was unproductive and a waste of time, so instead of having the trees planted at 300 to the acre, we slowly increased them to about 3000, thereby, growing a smaller tree and yet still getting the same and even greater amount of fruit to the acre.. In our orchard we used smaller gangs of pickers, only two to each tree, and the one responsible for that gang made sure that the bin was kept as close to the pickers as possible , so no undue walking to the bin. In some orchards today I believe that some are using “picking platforms” that travel along the row, increasing efficiency again.
In our orchard, Greg and I also used mobile ladders, with own engine and hydraulic lifted platform for pruning the trees with hydraulic operated pruning snips, so pruned our orchard of fifty acres and so did not have to pay a gang of men to do it so again saving labour. Although most of the apple thinning was done with chemicals, sometimes some blocks had to finished by some thinning by hand , and in those cases the mobile ladders were used to quickly get the job done.
Also the cold storage and packing of fruit for market has achieved a great improvement in efficiency. By using bulk handling of fruit in bins, much less time was spent getting the fruit to the Cold Storage facility. When using bushell cases, if I took a load of say, 180 on the truck there it would take me probably three hours to unload and stack them high in the cold rooms, but when Greg took a similar amount there in bulk bins, they would be lifted off by fork lifts there and stacked in the room for cooling and he would be back to manage his picking gang in fifteen minutes. The fruit handling and the way fruit is packed for market has been greatly improved at the Co-op Cold Store and Packing Shed also and with the purchase of new grader at a cost of over five million dollars, they have became very efficient, and can do now with ten less workers, so that is a huge saving to growers as they have been able to reduce the marketing cost to growers by twenty dollars per bin of fruit. With competition from Chinese apples arriving here, and also from New Zealand, growers just have to become more efficient to survive, and they are putting great effort into this, as they know that they will never receive subsidies from the government like some industries rely on to survive !
Now just a few statistics regarding installation of anti- bird and anti-hail netting in orchards. A grower told me that it cost 50,000 dollars per hectare for installation, He said that he had twenty seven hectares of orchard and that so far, he had installed it in one third of his orchard. So nine hectares at $50,000 per hectare is $450,000, a large investment, but a very necessary one, as bird damage can reduce the amount of saleable fruit by a third and a hail storm can turn a first grade crop of apples into a crop of second grade in minutes. which could bankrupt a grower in a season.
This has just been a short discussion on changes the apple industry here, has had to make but other rural industries are having similar problems. Take the dairy industry here for instance. When I was young, a farmer around here would only have about thirty cows to milk by hand, of course, would grow a patch of potatoes in the season, provide for his family and survive. Now most are long gone, some have gone to other areas, and are milking 800 to 1000 cows each day, with huge and efficient milking facilities, and vastly improved irrigation and apparently this has had to be done to make a reasonable living for their family.
Well, this has all happened in my short life of eighty odd years, one wonders what changes there will be in the next eighty,– it seems that the only thing that is “constant is change” so inevitably many things will happen, and people will have to adapt. I will not be here to see it, but hope that is does not bring too much hardship for rural families.
Much more could be written on this subject, but maybe, enough for future generations to understand a little about my period of life, and the great effort that growers have made to remain competitive, under difficult circumstances, and, as an industry, to survive, without government assistance, and subsidies.
This was written March 2012.
By Kelvyn Vickers