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A day in the life of a researcher

By Kara van der Berg

The average person might complain about their “nine-to-five” jobs, but that pales in comparison to the challenges of travel and related work hours of the fruit evaluators and students at Provar, which becomes part of their work schedule.

One such person is Anika Kock who is a M.Sc. student and newly appointed stone fruit evaluator. She and her colleagues are currently working – among other things – to collect data for the Adaptability project funded by HortgroScience. This collaboration between Hortgro and Provar aims to generate accurate information on which to base cultivar adaptation to different growing environments that will minimise the risks to producers planting new cultivars.

In her capacity as evaluator, Anika explains “An advanced screening evaluation by Provar is the preferred type of evaluation we perform on cultivars and / or new selections in various evaluation sites”. “This means we are collecting data looking at all possible phenological stages and characteristics of the tree and evaluating the full potential of the fruit. We advise our clients to at least do three years of advanced screening evaluations per cultivar or selection in three different areas so that the full potential of the cultivar can be understood.”

The researchers at Provar drive between various sites to quantify, by objective collection of data, how the cultivars are performing under each location’s unique circumstances. They evaluate these cultivars to test how they will perform before planted by producers.

“The whole point is to ensure the planting of adapted cultivars that perform and supply the best yields of the best product,” explains Anika.

Provar analyses cultivars at roughly 30 sites across the Western Cape, which means their evaluators spend a lot of time on the road. Anika says that she often travels and works from 07:00 to 19:00 – as aforementioned, the nine to five pales in comparison.

On the day Hortgro joined Anika for her visits, she only had two locations to visit, one in Robertson and another in Montagu, making it a more relaxed day – despite the 270 km drive. “Yesterday I drove about 400 km, so driving has become second-nature for me.”

Once she arrives at the site, Anika explores the orchard to evaluate each cultivar’s phenological development, tree characteristics and if at optimal stage, harvests fruit for visual and sensory fruit evaluation and yield estimates.

In the Pro-Hort programme, ten trees are planted on two different rootstocks for each cultivar, i.e., Kakamas control and the preferred rootstock for that specific soil and orchard conditions, thereby ensuring that we get the bigger picture of the potential of the cultivar, but also to see whether the rootstock choice plays a significant role in tree growth and yield.

As she walks, she picks some fruit and takes a bite. “I try not to consume too many fruits, and only apply a small taste sample test,” she laughs.

Provar frequently hosts tastings at their laboratory and at the Pro-Hort sites, inviting IP managers of new cultivars to showcase their newest cultivars and to experience what cultivars are most liked by the tasters.

Like most things in life, the evaluation process has also been made easier with the help of inhouse developed technology called Culteva software. Each cultivar is labelled with a unique barcode which, once scanned, takes you to the cultivar data sheet on the Culteva dashboard with collected data, photos and notes from the orchard and laboratory. She will later use these notes in her final report to the respective clients.

“The app makes it so much easier; I don’t know how people can do this job without the aid of such technology.”

Once she has scanned all the QR codes and made some notes, she starts harvesting fruits from the trees. “For normal evaluation, I take about 40 fruits at random from each cultivar in each plot, taking a snapshot of the fruit quality for the specific harvest season.” For scientific projects and semi-commercial evaluation, more fruits are harvested.

Weather plays a significant role in the Provar evaluation work as results may be affected from season to season. “We must be aware of how the weather might impact the different cultivars and harvest times in each location” Anika says. You can anticipate when something will be ready to harvest. But weather plays a key role, so we have to keep our eyes open and be on the constant lookout for the optimal harvest date.”

After the fruit is harvested at every site, it’s back to the Provar lab in Paarl where various tests are done on the fruit, i.e., maturity index (at harvest), mid storage, post storage and post shelf- life evaluation, to see what the product will look like by the time it gets to a consumer in the marketplace.

“We want fruits to be able to keep until it reaches their destination, wherever in the world that may be. We don’t want buyers to say that fruit turned brown after sitting on their counter for one day, so that is why we do post shelf-life evaluations.”

Provar serves the Fruit Industry with independent new cultivar and rootstock evaluation.

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