STONEFRUIT processors may soon be able to know the sweetness of their fruit without tasting it.
Australian researchers are working on new hand-held sensing technology to measure the sweetness of peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots without puncturing the skin.
The device is one of three technologies being developed and tested in a new project launched in October by the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).
Sensors for Summerfruit is a 2.5-year $1.1 million Food Agility CRC project led by Agriculture Victoria in collaboration with RMIT University, Summerfruit Australia Ltd, and Australian technology companies Green Atlas and Rubens Technologies.
Food Agility CRC chief scientist, Professor David Lamb, said the ultimate goal of the project was to help growers get the right piece of fruit to the right consumer at the right time.
"From orchard to export, data-driven decisions are key," Professor Lamb said.
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"Two of the sensors, RMIT's Bistatic LiDAR and Green Atlas' Cartographer, will operate in the orchard helping to assess health status and predict fruit size, yield and maturity."
"A third sensor, Rubens Fluorescent Spectrometer, will be put to work in the packing sheds to detect sweetness, firmness and robustness for transport. It's the closest thing to tasting the fruit, without actually taking a bite."
The sensors will be calibrated on Agriculture Victoria's Tatura SmartFarm in Goulburn Valley, and then road-tested in commercial orchards and packhouses in Goulburn Valley, Swan Hill, Cobram, and Sunraysia.
Research leader crop physiology at Agriculture Victoria, Dr Ian Goodwin, said the project will benefit the summerfruit sector by growing export markets and improving their operations.
Growers need to be able to identify the right harvest timing for optimum quality, but that's just the beginning.
"Fruit is downgraded or redirected at the harvesting and packing stages because it doesn't meet consumer preferences for that market or, if fruit is harvested too early or too late, the quality can deteriorate in transit," Dr Goodwin said.
"Using these sensors, we could help growers tailor their practices to grow the fruit consumers want, triaging fruit in the packing sheds, and only exporting those robust enough to make the journey."
Summerfruit Australia Ltd chief executive officer, Trevor Ranford, said the project would focus on the Chinese market but would ultimately be relevant to any export market for Australian stone fruit.
"We have spent years improving our understanding of consumer preferences," he said.
"For example, when it comes to nectarines, our Chinese consumers prefer yellow nectarines that are sweet and low in acid, with a redder skin colour."
Australian summerfruit exports have increased annually by an average 12 per cent for the past 10 years.
"In the 2019/20 season alone the industry exported over 21,000 tonnes of stone fruit worth $89.11 million," Mr Ranford said.
"This project takes it to the next level, helping us refine those requirements and make decisions along the supply chain to grow high-quality fruit that looks, tastes and feels perfect to Chinese consumers and consumers in more than 40 other export markets."
Rubens Technologies founder, Daniel Pelliccia, said his company's aim was to help farmers grow the "perfect plum".
"Growers need to be able to identify the right harvest timing for optimum quality, but that's just the beginning," he said.
"A plum may taste fantastic at harvest time, but is it robust enough to make the journey from Victoria to a market in Beijing?
"Our fluorescence spectrometer technology has the potential to give growers a fast answer without damaging the fruit."
Green Atlas 's technology is currently in use in apple, almond, kiwifruit, wine grape, avocado and cherry orchards around the world.
Green Atlas founder, Steve Scheding, said the project elevates the company's offering, by testing how well it can measure not only the yield of flowers, fruitlets and fruit in an orchard, but also the size and colour of the fruit.
"We are excited to demonstrate how the Cartographer can benefit summerfruit growers," Mr Scheding said.
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