If water can’t be cut, use it efficiently
With water being the second highest cost, after labour, dried vine fruit production relies on efficient use of water. It is not an input that can be drastically cut as an easy means of reducing costs because it is the sun and water which make berries plump and engineer the production of sugar and flavour in our dried sultanas, muscats and currants.
Stephen Bennett of Merbein is one of those with a long family history in dried vine fruit who is using advanced technologies emerging from research to remain viable.With water being the second highest cost, after labour, dried vine fruit production relies on efficient use of water.
It is not an input that can be cut as an easy means of reducing one side of the ledger because it is the sun and water which make berries plump and engineer the production of sugar and flavour in our driedsultanas, muscats and currants.
Australia’s Sunraysia is world renowned for quality dried vine fruit and while rising costs of production, the surge in winegrape prices in the 1990s which caused many growers to switch, and water restrictions in more recent times, have caused a decline, the capacity to produce the best quality produce has not diminished.
Stephen Bennett of Merbein is one of those with a long family history in the area who has stayed with dried vine fruit. He has a keen interest in research and is involved in the industry’s peak body. He has 25 hectares of vines, mostly Sultanas, with some Sun Muscat and Currants. There has been some replanting to a Sultana selection called Sunglo, for which CSIRO secured plant variety rights from the US Department of Agriculture.
Sunglo is an example of research delivering a means of reducing losses. It has been selected for ability to resist splitting under rain and consequent invasion by Botrytis and mildews which reduce yields, spoil quality and add to spraying costs. Another cost related change has been mechanisation of harvesting and pruning. Although this has been refined over the years there is still a relatively high labour input for major vineyard operations when compared with winegrape production.
The most significant change in the last 20 years on the Bennett property to improve viability has been in irrigation. In the past, furrow irrigation would use close to 9 megalitres per hectare to produce an average of 5 tonnes of dried fruit per hectare. Today’s figures are 7 to 8 megalitres and 8 tonnes respectively, using a pressurised irrigation system. In the last two decades there have been a number of contributors to greater efficiency, including higher yielding varieties and improved trellising for maximising sunlight. Irrigation technology, however, has been the major player.
“Pressurised systems are labour efficient and delivery efficient,” Stephen said. About 60% of the vines are under drip and the remainder under low level sprinklers, with an aim to eventually have all irrigated by drip.
Stephen, who uses software for records and monitoring irrigation requirements, says today’s irrigators are able to have a better appreciation of vine needs and responses to irrigation and can see the importance of a variety of influences including soil type, temperature and evaporation.