Meat & Livestock News

Robot-Ready Orchards: The Future of Fruit Farming


  • Central Otago’s summer and pip fruit growers are exploring a new orchard system by Plant & Food Research, promising to double productivity and improve environmental and labour efficiency.
  • The Future Orchard Planting System (FOPS) involves closer rows of fruit trees and a two-dimensional canopy structure for better light penetration and uniform fruit quality.
  • The system, supported by MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund and industry partners, is designed for automation and robotics, with field days to educate growers on its benefits.

In Central Otago, a groundbreaking orchard-growing system is capturing the attention of summer and pip fruit growers. Developed by Plant & Food Research, the Future Orchard Planting System (FOPS) is set to revolutionise the industry by potentially doubling productivity, enhancing environmental outcomes, and improving labour efficiency.

This innovative approach is based on the concept of planting fruit trees in closer rows and growing them in a planar (two-dimensional) structure. Such a configuration not only ensures optimal light penetration into the canopy but also guarantees uniformly high-quality fruit.

Dr Jill Stanley, the crop physiology group leader at Plant & Food Research, highlighted that many new commercial orchards of apples, apricots, and cherries are adopting FOPS, with cherries also utilising a similar system known as the UFO growing system. These systems are particularly advantageous as their two-dimensional canopy structures are more conducive to automation and robotics, making fruit more accessible.

The push towards ‘robot-ready’ orchards is seen as a significant step forward, with the potential to bring substantial benefits in the near future. The initiative to broaden the adoption of these innovative growing systems is supported by funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund (SFF Futures), Plant & Food Research, and industry partners including New Zealand Apples and Pears, Rockit Global, and Summerfruit New Zealand.

To familiarise growers with FOPS, field days are being organised, offering a platform for both conventional growers to consider system conversion and for early adopters to share insights.

According to Stanley, early adopters, particularly in the sweet cherry sector, have already seen consistently high yields of excellent quality, underlining the pronounced benefits of high-value crops like cherries. In the 2022-23 season, nearly 3,600 tonnes of cherries, valued at $88 million, were produced in New Zealand, predominantly in Central Otago, harvested from mid-December to early February.

The apple industry is witnessing similar advantages from adopting these future-oriented growing systems. Kate Hellstrom, CEO of Summerfruit NZ, expressed optimism about the industry’s prospects, emphasising the importance of exploring new growing systems to tackle labour shortages, crop variability, and future challenges related to water restrictions and climate change. With the demand for New Zealand fruit expected to rise, these innovative systems could play a crucial role in ensuring the sector’s sustainability and growth.