TOMRA Food reveals first details about new research orchard

Further scientific research into the causes and effects of growing conditions on fruit will make sorting and grading even more effective

TOMRA Food has revealed the first details about its research orchard, the only facility of its kind run by a manufacturer of sorting and grading solutions. The research orchard occupies a 2.5-hectare (6.2-acre) plot in Waikato, New Zealand, next to the company’s 5,100-sq-m field research centre, which opened in 2022.

TOMRA Fresh Food’s field research manager, Richard Pickard, explained: “The orchard’s purpose is to monitor the flowering and fruiting of plants at each stage, adding to our understanding of the core commodities handled by our sorters and graders. We will assess fruit defects, quality issues, and key characteristics such as flavour, sweetness, and firmness. This complements our fruit science programme, which for over ten years now has been researching how the chemical and physical properties of fruit correlate with fruit quality and sorting requirements.”

Almost half the orchard’s ground area has so far been planted, with three varieties of kiwifruit, five varieties of apples, four varieties of cherries, and avocados. Lemons, mandarins, limes, oranges, and blueberries will also be planted in the coming weeks. Fruits are being cultivated both conventionally and with experimental techniques, including UFO (upright fruiting offshoot) cherries, FOPS (future orchard production system) apples, and under-cover in-bag blueberries.

Cultivation at the research orchard is also sustainable. Use is made wherever possible of environmentally-friendly materials, such as bamboo, biodegradable tapes, and organic fertiliser. Water irrigation is controlled by an integrated solar system with in-ground moisture meters, which can override the solar system to reduce water waste. Furthermore, mulch, pruning, and cut grass are returned to the soil.    

TOMRA Food possesses one of the largest library of fruit data, acquired from hundreds of thousands of fruit samples and analysed for factors such as flavour, firmness, storage potential, defects, and the influence of weather conditions. It is this scientific foundation of fruit knowledge that the research orchard will build on.

TOMRA Fresh Food’s commodity science team lead, Brittany Jaine, commented: “For scientific studies, we need high-quality data plus an understanding of the full history of each piece of fruit we analyse. The research orchard provides a controlled source of fruit, where we know all pre- and post-harvest conditions, such as climate, irrigation, sprays, and handling. From this base, we can draw accurate conclusions with confidence.”

She added: “By obtaining more detailed information about the pre-and post-harvest physiology of our core commodities, we will gain even greater insights into the quality challenges faced by our customers, how and why they occur, and how best to detect them when sorting and grading. Customers will also be able to visit our orchard and discuss the challenges they face. Replicating these challenges in-field will enable us to understand their problems and develop the best possible solutions fully. This will help strengthen TOMRA’s position as the leading provider of the world’s most effective sorting, grading and post-harvest solutions.”