Always ahead of the latest technological and machinery developments, we imported the first Darwin mechanical blossom thinner in 2009. Today we’re still the sole importer of the Italian machine, which helps growers to produce high yields of good quality fruit without needing to rely on chemical agents or hand thinning labour.
In this article, we caught up with two growers, Will Jackson at Man of Ross, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and Mihai Seanca, orchard manager at Adrian Scripps‘ Hononton Farm, Brenchley, Kent, to get the ins and outs of how the Darwin works and help it can help boost efficiency while reducing labour and other input costs.
Will Jackson, Man of Ross, Ross-on-Wye
At Man of Ross we have a ring-fenced farm which extends to 650-acres, with 160-acres of top fruit. The rest of the farm is then woodland and arable, which is in a five-year stewardship scheme. As well as growing, we contract pack for a small number of other top fruit growers under the West Country Top Fruit cooperative.
In the last few years, we have taken out our pears, plums and cherries, so we now just have apples. In terms of the varieties, we have the usual mainstays Gala and Braeburn. Then over the last three years, we have been planting some Jazz, and finally we have this year put in a block of Kissabel.
Eight years ago, we invested in the Darwin mechanical blossom thinner. We use it today for the same reason: the cost of hand thinning simply didn’t add up. Hand thinning was too prohibitive and was taking away any sort of margins we might be getting from the apples. Particularly with the plums, we knew we needed to find a more cost-effective method to reduce the crop load. For us, even having an 80% crop level and not having to hand thin is still more profitable for us than having a full crop and then having to arrange and pay for hand thinning.
We did look at chemical thinning agents, but those are an inexact science, and we found the results to be very hit-and-miss – with more miss than hit.
When we had plums, the Darwin mechanical blossom thinner was always used in those first and with some very positive, noticeable effects. We still had to do some hand thinning, but it saved us about half the cost.
Currently, we use the mechanical blossom thinner annually across our Gala and Braeburn. Depending on the season, we may have to do a very small amount of hand thinning. For instance, last year in the Gala, we had clusters of five or six apples together, but it was a quick walk-through thinning process rather than standing at a tree for any duration.
What we actually look for is the trees’ response to the injury rather than the physical thinning effect. It is not so much about knocking the blooms and flowers off the trees as it is about the trees’ production of Ethylene, which makes a few more potential fruits fall off the tree.
We also have a theory that the Darwin assists with pollination. We have pollinators in our Gala and Braeburn orchards and when we go through the pollinator trees with the Darwin, the rush of pollen which comes off the flowers coats the flails. We are then moving through the orchard, spreading this pollen down the rows.
Our orchard is a “one-size-fits-all” set-up, with 3.25 metre rows, 70cm tree spacing and all plants top out at 2.7 metres. The Darwin is driven through at about 7km/h, but we have tested a number of different forward speeds, as well as spinner speeds, which have changed as the machine gets older and the flails get shorter.
In terms of cost savings, the Darwin mechanical blossom thinner is about 1/20th the cost of thinning out too many apples by hand later in the season. It has saved us a lot of money. It paid for itself in year one with the reduction in hand thinning costs and is now a key part of our orchard management programme.
Being based in Herefordshire, we started working with NP Seymour because they are the only dealer in the country to sell the Darwin mechanical blossom thinner. Despite the geographical distance, the team is always on the end of the phone and has been on-hand to give advice on how to use the machine. The Darwin is reliable and pretty simple to use, with a straightforward hydraulic motor. In the last eight years, we have had no breakdowns or issues, and I think we are only just about to replace the flails.
Mihai Seanca, orchard manager, Hononton Farm, Brenchley
At Hononton Farm, we have about 80 hectares of apples, including Gala, Braeburn, Opal and Red Prince. We use the Darwin mechanical blossom thinner across the whole business, not just at Hononton, because it wouldn’t be economically viable for us to just use it on this one site.
Our Darwin is used as an aid for other thinning methods. You have to think about what your individual business needs, and for us, it is about implementing a range of methods to be more precise. As long as hand thinners are available, we will continue to use them.
The Darwin mechanical blossom thinner is used first before we move on to use chemical thinning agents and finally hand thinners. Of course, it greatly depends on the year, and whether or not there is a heavy blossom, as to which varieties we will we use it on. There have been years where we have not used it at all, years where we have only used it on the Opal, and years where it has been used on a wide range of varieties.
We invested in the Darwin five years ago because we were looking to keep on top of costs and we were looking ahead, predicting that there would be issues with finding hand thinners.
All growers know that the main issue with hand thinning is that the hourly rate is increasing. Even as labour wage costs have gone up, the Darwin mechanical blossom thinner has allowed us to keep the thinning costs the same. Hand thinners, who are paid a piece rate, are no longer expected to thin 500 apples, they just need to thin maybe 250 or 300.
On top of wages, Brexit has discouraged people from coming to the UK and we don’t know what impact coronavirus will have over the course of the year, so for our business we are definitely using the thinner more and more.
We haven’t reduced our chemical costs, because we are still using them, however, by using the Darwin on the heavier fruit sets, I know that we have been able to maintain our thinning costs for the last three or four years.
Equally, chemical thinning agents, typically, aren’t very precise and they can very easily be either too much, or not enough. Chemicals rely on the right temperature, the right application, and there are lots of factors which are important to get the exact results you want.
The Darwin, when it is properly configured, can be much more accurate. In the five years we have had the Darwin, we have been able to make various adjustments to better suit our farming operations.
Growers do need to understand the thinner and how it works because it can be quite vicious if it is not set up correctly. It will vary from farm to farm because it will depend on your style of pruning, the varieties, age of the trees and so on.
Because the Darwin is adjustable, it allows you to make assessments and changes row by row. One example of this is we had an orchard which was planted one half with one clone of Gala, and the other half was another clone of Gala. Within this single site, one clone was very heavy and the other less so, but I was able to configure the Darwin to be a bit harsher on the trees which needed it. With a chemical agent, however, once you have set the application rate, that is it, it is set.
The Darwin mechanical blossom thinner has to be set up and ready to go at the drop of a hat, because there is only a very short interval when you can use it. You also cannot use it on a damp, misty or wet day because this can increase the risk of spreading canker and other diseases. We have only had one year where we couldn’t use it at all because the weather was not good enough. Unfortunately, that is why some growers are scared to use, but the risk of disease largely depends on the weather and growers just have to think about whether they want a heavy crop, or the risk of losing 10% of the trees to canker.
In my own personal opinion, Nick Seymour is the most reliable dealer. NP Seymour is a very nice family-run business, and the machinery they sell is very, very reliable. In the five years we have had the Darwin, we have never had a breakdown. And if we did, I know that Nick and the team understand that there is only a very small time frame in which you can use the machine, and when you are up against the weather, the support from Seymours is unbelievable. A few years ago, I lost the product manual and after one call phone, five minutes later, I had a copy of the book sent to me by email – what a response.
NP Seymour sells reliable machinery. For me, the Fendt is the best tractor on the market, and you can tell they have done their research. Anyone can sell you a machine but, in my opinion, growers need backup and no one can offer the support which Nick Seymour and his team offer. It is the whole package. Even with the coronavirus, the staff are still out there, they understand the farming business and are not just focused on sales.