Orchardists grow fruit or nuts (and occasionally other products) on trees. Their work can involve tree planting on a new site or removing and replanting trees on an old site. Planting is only a small, but important part of the job.

Unlike other horticultural crops, fruit and nut trees can take many years from when they are planted, until when they are productive i.e. producing a viable crop. Many will take 3 to 5 years to become fully productive, and some more than 10 years. Some fruits (e.g. pawpaw and banana) may reach full production within a year or two of planting. The work involved on an orchard can be different while the trees are establishing, to what it is after the plants are established.

Once established, the work of an orchardist generally follows a standard annual program. Fruit (or nuts) will be harvested at a certain time each year, and after harvest there will be periods when the orchardist needs to attend to weed control (e.g. cultivation, mulching or spraying), pruning (more important with some crops than others), fertilising, watering, drainage works and other tasks.

Some fruits will be harvested and sent to market for sale immediately. Sometimes though, the orchardist will harvest and store the produce in a cool store, or under controlled atmosphere, then sold throughout the year as and when it is advantageous to get an optimum price.

There are periods when the workload is less, and other times (usually harvest) when work demands are hectic and hours of work can be very long.

Where Do They Work?
Most people who work on orchards are either the owners, family members, or seasonal (usually unskilled or semi-skilled) workers. Many orchardists will employ seasonal labour for picking fruit, and some employ casual or part-time labour for other things such as pruning.

Certain fruits and nuts are more productive and can attract much higher levels of income than others. Mainstream fruits (e.g. oranges and apples) can sometimes be over-produced and when that happens, the income may be poor, but in a season when production is low (e.g. during a drought or after a flood) these mainstream fruits may be in low supply and high demand, and the orchardist can do very well. Some orchardists have reduced risk and improved profitability by value adding to their produce (e.g. making wine, producing preserves, or producing dried fruits). Others have focussed on growing rare and exotic varieties, creating a niche market by supplying a fruit that no one else supplies.

Nuts offer a slightly different opportunity to fruits because they generally keep better. If you harvest a nut crop, you can transport it to a different market without fear of the produce bruising or rotting, and if there is a glut when you harvest a crop, the nuts can be stored for a long time until prices improve, then sold.

Large fruit producers have the opportunity of signing contracts with processing factories or supermarket chains which guarantees their sales; contract growing though, is always a compromise where you accept a lower than optimum price, in order to be certain of a sale at harvest.

Many fruits will have dozens, and some hundreds, of named cultivars.  Even within the same type of fruit, the characteristics of the fruit can vary a lot (e.g. taste, what it can be used for, time of year it is harvested, etc.). If, for example, an orchardist grows all of the same variety of apple, it may only be suitable to selling for cooking, or for juicing, or for eating fresh - but not all three. If the entire orchard is the same apple variety, the apples may all need to be harvested around the same time. If you are harvesting fruit with a mechanical harvester, and selling under contract to a juicing plant, it can be advantageous to be harvesting everything in the same week. However if you are harvesting by hand and selling fruit over an extended period, you would be better growing apples that can be harvested at different times. There are apple varieties that can be harvested mid to late summer, and others that are not harvested till mid autumn.

What is Needed?
Orchardists need:
  • Broad foundation knowledge of horticulture including soils, nutrition, water management, weed control, pest and disease management, when a cultivar is likely to ripen, etc.
  • Knowledge of the specific requirements for growing fruit and nut cultivars you choose to grow and an ability to choose cultivars that are most productive - so they can choose suitable cultivars and treat them appropriately.
  • Skills to operate machinery and equipment, and apply safe and productive work practices
  • An understanding of harvest and post-harvest handling practices
  • If you are to be self-employed you need business and marketing skills

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