The shape of trees to come

Leon Jahae, a leading top fruit consultant working with Agrovista, provides a fascinating insight into how orchard management might evolve over the next few years.

Over the past 15 years, UK orchard design and husbandry has shifted towards higher productivity per hectare whist, in most cases, using reduced resources.

We have developed and adapted higher density systems that come into full production earlier, enabling us to simplify tree husbandry. 

However, increasing demands of the market place, limited availability of skilled and unskilled labour, reduced availability of crop protection products and the effects of climate change will force us to go even further and build on the past 15 years of evolution.



The Anno 2025 orchard

Transition and development do not happen overnight, but the time it takes to implement change will continue to reduce. 

Climate limitations

Climate responses will be region dependent, but increased risks of sunburn and spring frost as well as changes in the timing and amount of rainfall are likely to varying degrees wherever you farm. 

As climate risks factors increase, it will be necessary to improve water use efficiency through a combination of better water-delivery mechanisms and reduced evaporative losses, together with improved water capture and storage capabilities.

It is not unthinkable that extreme temperatures, increased hail risk and further reduction and availability of crop protection products will lead us to overhead cooling systems, netting and protectant sprays.

New apple and pear varieties

New apple and pear varieties will continue to enter the crowded market. Only the best-marketed varieties are likely to remain viable. Pest and disease resistance of new varieties will play an even more important role, but quality will remain paramount.


Management and data collection will move from orchard level to tree level. In reality, when we are hand-pruning and hand-thinning for instance, we are already managing individual units. 

These tasks are fulfilled through previous experiences and simple rules, and are often made easier or more difficult depending on the uniformity, or otherwise, of the orchard. Keywords such as size, shape, quantity and colour determine the husbandry.

Data processing operates on very similar principles, capturing this kind of information and processing it into decisions. These technologies are not new and will be implemented into our orchard management. 


Introducing new technology

Computer vision

This technology is ideally suited to the top fruit sector, as a computer is programmed to identify objects based on size, colour and shape, or any almost any other characteristic, to provide measurements. Through this, computers can be made to gain high-level understanding from digital images or videos, automating tasks that the human visual system can do.

Soil mapping 

This is used for applying nutrients and water based on soil and plant requirements and is already commonplace in many arable operations. For the fruit grower, further fine-tuning to enable mapping to work as a tree-based operation will help ensure its widespread uptake. 

Self-directed machinery

This technology is by no means new. Driverless tractors were demonstrated during the late 1970s and 1980s and tractors that can mowing and spray without an on-board operator are already in use on some UK farms.

Robot harvesters

Harvesting fruit autonomously, based on colour and size, is possible but needs further fine-tuning. It will become cost effective within the foreseeable future. Similar repetitive tasks are likely subjects for automation. 


Adapting and facilitating new technologies

Most farms already do a lot of data collection, such as weather, full bloom dates, yield/ha/year, harvest dates, fruit size development, spray and nutrient applications. The more data you can or already do store, the easier it will be to implement new technologies.


Most of us will be able to irrigate/fertigate different blocks separately. Some of us will be able to irrigate/fertigate tree rows separately. Very few will be able to irrigate/feed to the individual tree need (determined by soil and soil structure in that particular area of the orchard).

Correct orchard design

Aim for efficiency to maximise inputs:

  • Best light interception and distribution 

  • High planting density (also possible by introduction of multi-leader systems and, if needs be, stronger rootstocks)

  • Ready for automation


We will be working with narrow canopies and their associated efficiency gains: typically 30-40cm wide canopies resulting in efficiency improvement for pruning, thinning, picking and most other orchard tasks.


Very narrow canopies lend themselves to existing labour-saving technologies, including over-row sprayers, platforms and harvest-assist equipment. Very importantly, they are also robot ready!


So where is this heading? An orchard designed around 2,500 multileader trees (four leaders per tree) contains 10,000 production units/ha. Each unit has a length of 2m production area, giving a total of 20,000m or 2km/ha. 


In UK conditions this has the potential to produce 100t/ha of uniform quality fruit. We have already picked up this challenge and are turning it into reality. 


* Leon Jahae has many years’ experience working across the UK with Agrovista, advising on best orchard practice to help growers achieve optimum production and efficiency gains.




03 October 2019

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