BioAg Case Study No 13: Almonds, Barry & Jan Hensgen, Red Cliffs, Victoria.The adoption of a biological nutrition program has rejuvenated 2,900 almond trees that were languishing under the ill-effects of a high input management system.
Red Cliffs district almond grower, Barry Hensgen, began applying a high-input fertiliser program across his two blocks on the advice of a consultant several years ago. “This program aimed to achieve a yield of about 3.1 tonnes kernel per ha, which was about 30 percent higher yields than the industry average,” he said.
“The basic idea was that the more we fed our trees, the higher our yield. This seemed logical to us, and sheep-like, we put on more and more fertiliser, far more than we had ever used in our lives.
“We never got the extra yield but we could see our trees declining – in fact, they were dying, particularly the mature trees on our second block. Those trees were only half-way through their productive life yet they looked like they had reached their use-by date.
“The leaves were burnt at the tips, the branches were defoliated and they generally looked sick. I didn’t know what to do but I knew I had to find an alternative.”
Barry contacted a local agronomist (who then went to work for BioAg), who had a well-developed interest in biological nutrition. He inspected the trees and concluded that they weren’t dying as much as being poisoned by over-fertilisation.“The agronomist said we were literally killing our trees with goodness,” Barry said.
“We were putting on so much nitrogen and other nutrients that our soils had become toxic. His advice was to apply vitamins and microbial cultures to restore the microbial activity in the soil.
“This seemed like a strange solution to us, but we knew if we stayed on the path we were on, we weren’t going to have any trees to worry about. We decided to bite the bullet, stopped the old program and started a biological approach.”
The following year, Barry began implementing a year-round fertility program incorporating a range of “biologically active” solid nutrients and fermented liquid cultures produced by BioAg.
Typically, each block receives an annual application of 350 – 500 kg/ha* BioAgPhos® (a reactive phosphate rock that has been treated with a proprietary microbial culture) and 350 – 500 kg/ha* sulphate of ammonia during spring.
The solid nutrients are applied using a belt spreader between the tree rows.In addition, 1 – 1.5 L/ha* of BioAg Soil & Seed™ (a liquid treatment that encourages root development and soil microbial activity) and 15 – 25 kg/ha*
of calcium nitrate (a rich source of calcium and nitrogen) is applied at 21 – day intervals throughout the growing season via the fertigation system.
During early flowering and fruiting, 1.5 – 2.5 L/ha* of BioAg Balance & Grow®, a liquid microbial culture which stimulates vegetative growth and improves soil microbial activity, mixed with small amounts of calcium nitrate and micronutrients as needed, is applied as a foliar spray at 21 – day intervals.
During maturation, 2 – 3 L/ha* of BioAg Fruit & Balance®, a foliar treatment which delivers a rich source of nutrients to enhance yield and quality, and monoammonium phosphate (MAP), is applied.
“That was three yeas ago and we have used nothing but BioAg products since,” Barry said. “Our younger trees are just bouncing along. You only have to compare them to the trees in conventionally-managed groves. The mature trees still have a way to go but at least they have started to come back from the dead.
“The beauty of the BioAg program is that it is so easy and simple to use. Putting out large amounts of urea through a fertigation system is a lot of work, not to mention cost. We have never done the sums with BioAg because to be honest, we have not bought enough of their products for it to be a worry!”Barry hopes the improved vigour of his trees will also reduce his reliance on other inputs. “I have come to the conclusion that the horticultural industry is applying far too many chemicals,” he said.
“The amount of preventative fungicides applied around here each year is enough to wear out tractors. There comes a point when you have to ask yourself, ‘Exactly what are we preventing?’ If your trees are healthy, they can naturally overcome disease. I’m hoping that we won’t need to apply a fungicide at all next year.”
Barry, who was raised on a dried fruit farm, bought a 7.4 ha vineyard in the mid – 1990s after a 30 – year career with Telstra. Soon afterwards, he purchased a second six ha block which was planted to eight-year-old Nonpareil, Neeplus and Fritz almond trees.
He redeveloped the first block to almonds in 1999, planting 1,800 Nonpariel (Californian Paper Shell), Neeplus and Carmel trees in between the vines.
The latter were removed two years later.
“I was looking for something to do in retirement and wasn’t that happy with the performance of my rollover fund, so I decided I could do a better job by investing it in an almond grove. Why retire when you can go farming and work 80 hours a week instead of 40.”
Barry and his wife, Jan, recently sold both properties to finally pursue a “real” retirement, but have elected to stay on as managers for at least 12 months.
*All application figures are provided as a guide only.