Ardmona orchardist a leader in innovation

By Jamie Salter

Ardmona's Plunkett Orchards orchard manager Jason Shields is up for an award to recognise the application of innovation in agriculture.

Mr Shields was nominated for the Agricultural Innovation Award as part of the Victorian Regional Achievement and Community Awards.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming, I would never expect to be nominated, you just do what you do,” he said.

“We do it to grow fruit and to make life easier for the people who work for us.”

Mr Shields recently won Apple and Pear Australia, Hort Connection and Weekly Times grower of the year awards and said the key to his success was coming up with ways to future-proof the business.

“If backpackers can't come in, we come up with ways to have anyone come in and pick fruit — where a lot of other businesses are reliant on the seasonal worker program,” he said.

One method of ensuring production and optimising labour efficiency at Plunkett Orchards is through the use of elevated harvest platforms.

“We work six people on the machine and they go up and down to pick the tops of the trees, rather than using ladders — so we're taking away potential OH&S risks,” Mr Shields said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man, woman, young or old, it's not a physically demanding job.

“The only problem is you need to have your farm built for it; 12 to 14 years ago we had the vision and set up 90 per cent of the orchard ready for platforms.”

Mr Shields said mechanising orchards was about being able to grow twice as much fruit and employ more people.

“It's mechanised but it's not using machines to do the jobs for you,” he said.

“If you’re not planning a way to optimise the things we have now, such as labour efficiency machines, you're going to struggle into the future.”

Mr Shields also took a risk by shifting the orchard's reliance from chemicals to insects.

“We spent more money on chemicals and sprayed more but our results were getting worse — if you're killing all the good insects, you're 100 per cent reliant on chemicals.

“So we bought beneficial insects and placed them around the farm, and cut our chemical bill by 75 per cent in one year, and had 95 per cent better result.”

Mr Shields said there were only advantages to sharing his knowledge with the industry.

“I know so much because I've made so many mistakes — it's better that we all only make mistakes once.”

If Mr Shields wins the award, he hopes to put the $2000 prize money towards visiting orchards in Europe.