Sizing up to stay on top

Alpine Apples at Wandiligong is the home orchard and main sorting and storage facility for the family’s four apple and chestnut orchards in cool climate North East Victoria and south eastern NSW

This is a transcript of an unpeeled podcast interview with Keith Nightingale of Alpine Apples in Wandiligong, just outside Bright. Keith has been growing apples for 68 years, initially in Melbourne’s Doncaster. He now grows in volume for the commercial apple market, including club varieties. You can also listen here.

Hello, everyone, I’m Peter Kenyon and welcome to another podcast from unpeeled press where I’m exploring food culture of North East Victoria. I was delighted to speak recently with Keith Nightingale of Alpine Orchards at Wandiligong. Keith started growing apples in Doncaster in Melbourne before moving to the North East. He has almost 70 years of apple growing experience and now he and his children and grandchildren represent the largest commercial apple orcharding business in our region.

Keith Nightingale, preeminent apple orchardist, how long have you been growing apples?

Keith Nightingale

Sixty-eight years.

Peter Kenyon

And did you come from a family of apple growers or you’ve created the family of apple growers?

Keith Nightingale

My brother and I started growing apples together in Doncaster, out of Melbourne and we could see that subdivision was going to happen in those districts. So we looked around for an apple orchard somewhere and I heard of Wandiligong for the first time ever. And we looked at the orchard and said to the man who owned it, “If you want to sell it, let us know,” and that happened.

Peter Kenyon

How big was that orchard at the time? Was it a big expansion from Doncaster?

Keith Nightingale

Oh, indeed! In acres it was probably something like a hundred acres. And in Doncaster, I think we were on 20 acres. So it was considerably bigger.

Peter Kenyon

And how big is the Wandiligong orchard now, that we’re sitting at today?

Keith Nightingale We’ll now talk in hectares. It’s somewhere near 68 hectares [c 170 acres].

Peter Kenyon

And that’s under apples and chestnuts, or is that all apples?

Keith Nightingale

It’s all apples.

Peter Kenyon

And then in addition to this orchard you’ve also got a bigger area at Buckland and you’ve got Batlow as well and you’ve also got some acreage at Stanley.

Keith Nightingale

Yes, yes.

Peter Kenyon

That makes you the biggest apple orchardist in the region, does it not?

Keith Nightingale

In this region, yes it would. I’ve never said we’re the biggest. The locals like to say that. I do say we’re the best.

Peter Kenyon

But there aren’t as many as there used to be are there?

Keith Nightingale

No.

Peter Kenyon

And have you a reason why that might be?

Keith Nightingale

I think the main reason is the orchardists of old have retired and got out of it where I’m lucky enough to have had three sons that wanted to stay on and grow apples and they’ve had three sons, so it’s an ongoing family system.

Peter Kenyon

And it’s working so you see a future for it?

Keith Nightingale

Well, we only hope there’s a future. I think there is. I believe that it would be. It’s all today to do with varieties and quality – and quantity to a lesser extent. In our case I think it’s driven a fair bit by apple juice and apple cider which we’d never heard of those years ago. That’s quite recent. And there’s a demand now for particularly cider.

Peter Kenyon

Alcoholic or non-alcoholic or both?

Keith Nightingale

Both.

Heritage apple poster. https://www.heirloomapple.com/

Peter Kenyon

What varieties of eating apples do you grow now and how does that compare with when you first planted your orchard here in Wandiligong or bought an orchard? 

Keith Nightingale

The varieties then were Jonathan, Delicious, Granny Smith, Rome Beauty, Statesman, Stuart’s. Oh, Five Crown. They were the old-time varieties. Today, it is the new varieties like JAZZ™. The old varieties, the Johnnies, Grannies and Delicious and Golden Delicious are still grown, but the new varieties are more inclined to be Gala, Kanzi®, JAZZ™, envy™, Fuji, Pink Lady®. Granny Smiths have turned a corner. Originally, they were bad for sunburn because they’re green and we went through a time where we tried to prevent sunburn and it wasn’t very successful but then we started to use nets on the trees and that certainly solved the sunburn.

Nowadays they’re green as green when they’re taken off the trees.

Peter Kenyon

So they’re picked far earlier than they used to be.

Keith Nightingale

I think, yes, they are. They’re picked earlier than I think they should be but that’s governed by the supermarkets who want them early and green.

Peter Kenyon

And they say that that’s dictated by customer demand.

Keith Nightingale

Yes.

Museums Victoria
https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/367682

Peter Kenyon

I think some of those apples that you mentioned, the Kanzi® and the JAZZ™ and the envy™, they’re proprietary brands. Is that the correct terminology? So you pay a licensing fee or there’s an additional cost to growing those?

Keith Nightingale

There is indeed.

Peter Kenyon

It’s not like it used to be in terms of being able to just choose a variety and grow whatever you wanted and sell it.

Keith Nightingale

That’s right. The advantage of those varieties is that not every grower can grow them or sell them. So that the quantity of that fruit is controlled by the people who own the club.

Peter Kenyon

And that’s in terms of how many you’re allowed to plant?

Keith Nightingale

Yes everything. How many you should plant; how many you should grow and how many you can sell. It’s all governed.

Peter Kenyon

Is that a good thing? Are there advantages to you in that new type of arrangement?

Keith Nightingale

I guess there is advantages. It’s a funny one. It’s a hard question to answer.

Peter Kenyon

I suppose you have to take part because it is what it is. It’s here now.

Keith Nightingale

If you want to grow those varieties, you’ve got to get the okay to grow those varieties and then you’ve got to grow them to perfection, or they don’t want them. And with the old-time varieties, you could do what you liked with the apples. You know, you could put them into juice or cider or whatever, but with these new ones the companies that own them, really want them, want the apples to control themselves.

Peter Kenyon

Fresh eating apples.

Keith Nightingale

Yeah. Sure. And they do not want we packers to pack them.

Peter Kenyon

So even though you’ve got a huge investment in packing machinery you’re not permitted to pack those.

Keith Nightingale

No, they don’t want us to. The Kanzi we can pack. The other varieties we haven’t got the right to pack as yet.

Peter Kenyon

I want to go back to the orchards again. So you bought Wandiligong initially and then when did Buckland and Batlow and Stanley come in? Why did you expand into those areas?

Keith Nightingale

Well, I guess the main reason was we realized that different areas would avoid hail. Hail has always been a problem with apple growing. You can have hail for five minutes and the crop of fruit can be destroyed. We’ve had that happen. So it was a common occurrence really to put blocks of apples in other areas

Peter Kenyon

As insurance.

Keith Nightingale

As insurance and usually it worked. I mean, we have been hailed here but not on the other orchards. And then of course to combat hail we got hail netting. And the hail netting, we thought it was only good for hail, but it’s turned out it’s good for the safety of birds, sunburn or bleach. It’s good for four things really. The tree uses less water to grow the fruit and It keeps the bats off the trees.

Hail damaged fruit becomes unsaleable
https://hortnews.com/kent-apple-grower-suffers-severe-hail-damage/

Peter Kenyon

So the netting is a form of insurance as well.

Keith Nightingale

Oh, absolutely!

Peter Kenyon

And it’s proven worthwhile because it’s a very expensive. Your entire operation here is really impressive for the investment that you’ve made to keep at the cutting edge of apple production.

Keith Nightingale

Well, it’s important to harvest a reasonable crop of apples every year. The old-time apple tree was biennial. It cropped very heavily one year and poorly the next year. We try and even it out and try and get a sensible crop every year.

Peter Kenyon

How do you do that? How do you encourage it? Is that pruning? Is it thinning?

Keith Nightingale

It’s pruning and thinning and spraying, and there’s a lot of things you can do to create another crop next year. The disaster is to let a tree have too much on it this year, because then it will have a poor crop next year. So it’s all to do with water at the right time. Fertilizer continually. Fertigation, that means putting the fertilizer in with the water and dripping it to the tree. All, that and more keeps the crop cropping even.

Peter Kenyon

It’s an enormous investment at all ends of the apple: growing and harvesting and production. The whole process. It’s enormous but you’ve not been shy of investing in all the equipment that you need in order to stay at the cutting edge.

Keith Nightingale

I believe if you don’t spend, you don’t make.

Peter Kenyon

How does that sit with people who are trying to farm small scale apple orcharding? Is there a future?

Keith Nightingale

I don’t think so. I don’t believe so. The small orchardists really can’t get their fruit into the supermarkets. The supermarkets are interested in the best fruit they can find and that can only come from orchardists like us that make sure the fruit that leaves our shed is the best. Not nearly the best. The best.

Peter Kenyon

In terms of retail, are there enough distribution channels to allow you to get rid of everything from really top-line premium fruit to processing obviously the second-grade fruit into juice and cider and so on? Are there enough channels for you in Australia or is it a very concentrated market?

Keith Nightingale

We’ve got outlets. Every year by the time the new crop is coming in, the old crop has been sold and very little is destroyed. It can either be juice or cider or sparkling juice or, you know, there’s always somewhere to sell the apples.

Peter Kenyon

Is the market for the value adding that you do, for the juice and the cider, is that growing?

Keith Nightingale

Yes.

Peter Kenyon

Is that something that you could see continuing to grow?

Keith Nightingale

Yes, I’m sure.

Peter Kenyon

Is that something that we could process more up here instead of shipping away, in the North East?

Keith Nightingale

Well, we don’t ship much away.

Peter Kenyon

I mean in terms of having the juices and the ciders being manufactured elsewhere.

Keith Nightingale

As soon as we can, we’re going to put in a juicing plant. We’ve got to crush the apples and we’ve got juice. Then from juice, we go to cider and from the cider you’ve got sweet or dry or cloudy or it’s endless.

Peter Kenyon

And you’ll be able to do that here on site.

Keith Nightingale

We hope to.

Peter Kenyon

Have you got a timeline for that?

Keith Nightingale

I’ve been talking about it for years! It’ll be a slow process. There’s no reason why we can’t build a shed and put a juice plant in within the next 12 months. Now, maybe the fermentation and cider and so on bottling it’s a whole range bottling and canning. You know, it might take two or three years. It’s not going to happen overnight. In the meantime, we’re getting it done elsewhere.

Peter Kenyon

And establishing a very good model.

Keith Nightingale

We’ve done that already. We’ve got a huge demand on the product and unfortunately, we haven’t got the means to supply. So we’re relying on other companies and they’re sometimes letting us down.

Peter Kenyon

It’s a good position to be in though, isn’t it?

Keith Nightingale

It’s a worrying position because once people want your product and if you can’t provide it, they go somewhere else. So I don’t like that happening.

Peter Kenyon

Keith, do you remember the first apple you ever tasted?

Keith Nightingale

No, I do not.

Peter Kenyon

What would it have been do you imagine? What variety?

Keith Nightingale

Well, my father was the engineer in a cool store at, originally, Templestowe when I was born and then Doncaster, which was a huge co-op cool storage for all the growers in that district. All the fruit all the pears, apples and pears and plums and chestnuts – no, not chestnuts – peaches and cherries, you know, they were all put into those cool stores before they were sold to the Melbourne market. So I’ve been mixed up or I’ve been around fruit all my life.

What’s your favourite apple now? What what’s your favourite apple overall?

My favourite apple to eat today is envy closely followed by Fuji and Kanzi. It’s a toss-up: Fuji, Kanzi, envy are about in competition as far as I’m concerned.

Peter Kenyon

 Have you ever had any unusual varieties that you’ve noticed here growing on any of your trees that you’ve thought have a future as a club variety? Do you keep an eye out for that sort of thing because I know there are some growers who do that?

Keith Nightingale

Years ago when we only had Pink Ladies, the original Pink Lady, it wasn’t of good colour and I had a limb on a tree that was particularly good and early, earlier in maturity than the original Pink Lady and I isolated and told all my family to keep an eye on that. So we want to get wood off that to graft and in the meantime, someone cut the tree down!

Pink Lady apple – http://www.specialtyproduce.com

Peter Kenyon

That could have been your big break. You could have been living in Tahiti now!

Keith Nightingale

Well, it was only around the corner from the better Pink Ladies. The better Pink Ladies in colour was the Rosy Glow, Ruby Pink, Lady in Red. They’ve come along since then so I wouldn’t have been very close to the first ever.

Peter Kenyon

So the Pink Lady, I think what you’re saying is interesting is that even a single variety, like the Pink Lady is evolving over time. It’s not the same, the Pink Lady. The piece of fruit that you buy today is not the same fruit that you bought when it was first developed in the 1970s, I think.

Keith Nightingale

No, no it’s not.

Peter Kenyon

And so people are looking for …

Keith Nightingale

Well, we don’t use those new names and I think that was my idea. The public know the name Pink Lady and they don’t want to know or shouldn’t want to know Rosy Glow, Ruby Pink ,Lady in Red. Why? Pink Lady is what they know and what they buy, what they look for.

Peter Kenyon

But when you’re purchasing trees or rootstock or wood to graft, you’re buying it as Rosy Glow or Lady in Red?

Keith Nightingale

Yes. And you know that they’ll have a higher colour in the skin.

Peter Kenyon

It’s interesting, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in apple growing that people don’t realize.

Keith Nightingale

Always was. The original Delicious was a very ordinary looking apple and then came along spur-type varieties. One was an Oregon Spur. That was a Red Delicious, but it was an Oregon Spur and there was a whole range. I can’t remember all the names but the best and latest was the Red Chief. Now that came out of America, wouldn’t it? Red Chief. And it was the best-looking apple and the best shaped apple I’ve ever seen. It still is but the public don’t want it because I think the new varieties have pushed it aside.

Peter Kenyon

The new varieties are promoted though, whereas nobody is spending money, promoting a Johnathan or a Red Delicious.

Keith Nightingale

Not at all, not at all. it’s only the self-promotion or it falls over. We had a good apple. The Jonathan was a great apple for many years and then a better apple came along called Bonza and that was found in Batlow on a fence line. Just a red apple, the like of Jonathan but it kept better. It ate better. The longer you left it on the tree, the better colour you got. We grow some but you know it was a fantastic apple, Bonza.

Bonza apple, a chance seedling discovered by Ben Atkinson in Batlow in 1950
https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/horticulture/pomes/apples/varieties/bonza

Peter Kenyon

And how long ago was that?

Keith Nightingale

Oh, no many years.

Peter Kenyon

So that, is that a trademark variety?

Keith Nightingale

No. No, it’s not.

Peter Kenyon

So anyone can grow that.

Keith Nightingale

Yes anyone can grow that. But once again, the supermarkets do not want it.

Peter Kenyon

Keith, when did you put in your farm shop?

Keith Nightingale

Rhe farm shop has been in this yard here for 30 years, but it got out of date and we needed to have a better position for it and more accessible for the public and it needed to be refrigerated to keep the apples in good nick 12 months of the year. So we moved it down there.

Peter Kenyon

And that was only a few years ago.

Keith Nightingale

Three, I think.

Peter Kenyon

Is that doing well?

Keith Nightingale

Yes, very well. Very well.

Peter Kenyon

That’s good. And that’s open year-round, obviously.

Keith Nightingale

Yes, it is.

 Peter Kenyon

You’re picking already Galas and what are the next apples that will come and then what’s the cycle of apple picking this year and when will it finish?

Keith Nightingale

Kanzi are next. Kanzi and in-between the end of Kanzi, Granny Smith will start, and Granny Smith will go through two or three weeks and then that’ll intermingle with the early start of Pink Lady and then Pink Lady will go through. And that’s just about the end for us here. There used to be an apple called Sundowner that went beyond, but we no longer grow that.

Peter Kenyon

Can I ask why that is? Is its Pink Ladies hold up well enough that you don’t need a later season apple? Is that part of the reason?

Keith Nightingale

Yeah, that’s the reason. Sundowner was not welcome in the supermarkets and there was another one, Lady William, that was one of that family and Lady William wasn’t really ready to pick till July and that was too late and cold here in Wandi.

Peter Kenyon

Thank you, Keith. Thank you very much for making time today.

Keith Nightingale

Thank you, Peter.

Peter Kenyon

Okay. That’s it for today. I’m Peter Kenyon, and thank you for listening. Please leave a comment or a suggestion at the unpeeled.press website or find me on Facebook or Twitter. A special thank you to Charles Sturt University for its support in getting these podcasts underway through their Community University Partnership Grants. And a special shout out to Dr Sarina Kilham from Charles Sturt and Dr Nick Rose from Sustain Australia for helping to get these podcasts underway. Theme Music by Avocado Junkie. See you next time.

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