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Pruning will pay dividends
Pruning will pay dividends

Mike Dillon has always been fond of chainsaws, so he is pleased that he has developed a forte for avocado tree pruning that has made him one of the best in the business.

By his own admission, he tends to prune a lot heavier and more ruthlessly than others. His motto is: “If in doubt, cut it out”.

“The focus is on removing wood that isn’t good-quality fruiting wood,” says Mike, and this includes branches that have yellow leaves, are tight or gnarly or that look half dead.

“Set your parameters and stick to them. If you’ve got any doubt over whether to remove a particular branch, my advice is to cut it out. The focus is on leaving quality branches that have dark green foliage.”

Mike got into pruning after attending an avocado field day more than a decade ago in the Bay of Plenty (he lives near Katikati), and realising there were different ways to prune different trees.

“It’s got a lot more technical now. I was just removing one or two big limbs a season, but now there’s a lot of finer work cutting out unnecessary regrowth. I don’t get too hung up on shape – just whether the tree is too high, too wide or not healthy.”

Mike says the key is to follow good orchard practices. “Growers have to manage the crop in front of them first in order to get the best crop next time. This includes applying fertiliser, injecting for phytophthora, and pruning; and then harvesting at the right time.”

He is convinced that his pruning work plays a significant role in the yield, so much so that he is often not required back on some client orchards the next year. “There’s an avocado orchard that I have been in for eight years that has fruited every year.”

Mike prunes between March and November and handles export picking from Athenree to Welcome Bay in conjunction with a couple of other smaller crews between August and February.

“There’s too much sunburn [for the tree] if you prune over the summer. I’ve seen cracking in branches because of pruning at the wrong time and some branches that are carrying fruit are actually rotten inside.”

A lot of Mike’s skills have been honed on the job. “You pick it up when you are up in a tree. I remember what I cut out a year or so before and look at the result. This has guided me on whether I should do it again. Often I’ll say to myself that I know an orchard where this very approach will work again.”

Mike says there are no pruning rule books as such, and he applies his best judgment for each situation. “If I’m starting out with a huge, ugly tree, the first thing I’ll do is bring it back into shape.

“I’m always conscious of the return to the grower, so perhaps I’ll cut around fruit the first year. I might make a different cut each year as I go along.

“Some of the growers I work with have questioned what I do, but I am responding to unique situations. Most orchards are different, with different tree shaping, contours and exposure to wind.”

The reach of his 6.4m hydralada determines the maximum height. “My personal observation is that in low-volume years the big trees don’t pay their way in picking costs. I can’t really see that any of these big trees are producing more annually than 6m trees.”

Mike is part of the AIC pruning trial that is trying different approaches. There are 12 orchards involved with 25 trees each. Some of these trees remain as the control group while equal proportions are pruned in spring or autumn, either lightly or moderately.

Mike is all for the industry working together and he is a big fan of AVOCO, saying he hasn’t heard a bad word said about it.

“It had to be done – the world is too big. New Zealand exporters are not going to be able to service international markets on their own. I’m impressed with what AVOCO has been able to achieve already.

“I believe AVOCO is here for our best interests. It’s a long-term commitment.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado