Helios – thinking outside the box

Hutchinsons are proud of the excellent specialist service they provide to fruit growers, but they are not resting on their laurels and continue to think ahead and outside the normal realms of agronomic advice by initiating and investing in a ground-breaking 10-year project for top fruit, called HELIOS (Hutchinsons Enhanced Light Interception Orchard System). The project is based on the simple premise that the ultimate yield of apples is relative to how much light the tree can get, explains Rob Saunders, one of their specialist agronomists.

He explains that Hutchinsons are setting up two orchards of Gala from scratch, one in the West Midlands and one in Kent, where they will be trying to break through the theoretical yield barrier. In John Nix Farm Management Pocketbook 2017, the yields for dessert apples are reported to be between 25 and 50 tonnes/ha and for culinary apples between 30 and 55 tonnes/ha. Growers have managed to exceed these figures, but often at the expense of quality and consistency. “We have always thought there is a theoretical ceiling of 60 tonnes/ha yield,” says Rob. “But can we break through that ceiling? This is what we are aiming to do.”

“We think it may be feasible to achieve consistently higher crops of quality fruit, if the tree is able to capture more sunlight. By redesigning the canopy and tree architecture, it should be possible to intercept more light, which should mean higher yields. The Helios project has been set up to see if this theory can be proven. We are planting trees from different rootstocks, thinking of different support systems and redesigning the way the trees grow, so that less light is wasted by getting to the orchard floor. We have thought about more of a canopy in a simple horizontal plane with little depth – flatter canopies more open to the light,” says Rob.

The idea of Helios is to see how yields can be increased and how an orchard can be established more cost-effectively. The project is scheduled to run for ten years and growers will be invited to one of the sites to see for themselves how the project is progressing during that time.

Hutchinsons is becoming renowned for developing ground-breaking systems for growers. In arable and fruit crops, they have the Omnia Precision system which is a unique unrivalled precision farming system using Multi-Dimensional Data Analysis for whole field crop and nutritional planning system. “We are also developing the pioneering FruitVision system which counts and measures crop yield as it moves through the orchard. This system was sent to the southern hemisphere this winter for further development and is now back in the UK for final configuration and testing,” reports Rob. He also points out that the FruitVision imaging process is really the first step to automated picking. “When finally developed to the standards we are looking for, FruitVision could revolutionise fruit growing. With labour costs doubling every ten years, automated picking will be a huge step forward to more profitable fruit growing. Hutchinsons is looking and investing into the fundamentals of fruit growing, so that they can offer advanced developments to their grower customers.”


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