Research trials survive COVID-19

Zespri International cultivar innovation manager Bryan Parkes in the 40ha research orchard at PF&R Te Puke back in 2018.

Hundreds of arable research trials were paused for five weeks during the nationwide COVID-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown, which began on March 25.

And this has proved challenging for some projects at the Te Puke Plant & Food Research base, which is home to a 40ha research orchard where $35 million is invested by P&FR, Zespri and the Government every year.

However, the overall impact has been relatively minimal, says Zespri International cultivar innovation manager Bryan Parkes.

“While challenging, COVID-19 is likely to be more of a bump in the road, than a 2010 Psa repeat for trials,” says Bryan. “There are delays, but nothing is killing the cultivars like PSA did.

“Psa taught the industry how to respond to challenges, and has given us a resilient mindset. So now that COVID-19 has come along, we’ve stayed optimistic and there’s been a fantastic collaborative approach from the industry to safely get our fruit picked, packed and shipped to market,” says Bryan.

Cultivars maintained

While no ground-level research was permitted during the lockdown, cultivars were allowed to be maintained. And work has continued during Alert Level 3, while adhering to social distancing and contact tracing rules.

“Social distancing is practical for us, because we largely operate outside,” says Bryan, who is based at Te Puke P&FR.

“The timing has been lucky for most projects, as the harvest time for our cultivars is quite spread-out over late-January to June.

“In some cases we haven’t been able to harvest on time, which has left a few data holes in our programme. [But] the main impact for us is not being able to evaluate the vines and fruit at the time we usually would.”

Bryan says there are significant gaps in sensory testing data, which is obtained by consumers evaluating the fruit, and storage testing was also affected.

“Even though we have data holes this year, we can fill them next year with more robust data. “We may have to delay some riskier cultivar advancement decisions, but not all tests have been impacted.

“We evaluate cultivars for a number years before allowing them to progress onto the next stage. It has certainly set us back a bit, but a year’s delay for a few potential cultivars when you have a decade-view of the world isn’t a big knock.”

The COVID-19 setbacks experienced by the Foundation of Arable Research have also been manageable, says FAR research, development and extension general manager Andrew Pitman.

Of their 140 nationwide projects, only a handful have had to be discontinued so far. “Recent weather events, like the drought in the North Island and hail and flooding in the South, have impacted our field trials more than COVID-19,” says Andrew.

Missed autumn planting

However, the lockdown wasn’t without its downsides. “We missed out on autumn planting for some of our crops. We rely on farmers for this, and because they had to continue working they couldn’t delay their autumn sowing to wait for us.

“Ironically, the weather during lockdown was ideal for cereal planting, so we have lost a number of autumn cereal trials going into next season.

“We also lost two spring barley trials in Southland, as the contractors couldn’t get to the field.”

For the most part, Andrew says the timing of the lockdown worked in FAR’s favour.

“Five weeks may seem like a long time to people, but we have come out at the tail-end of our autumn sowing period, and we have time to rectify most projects.

“In coming weeks, we’ll be rushing to complete as much autumn sowing as we can. Some trials may fall over due to a number of factors that come with planting later in the season, such as lower soil temperatures.

“But, by the time we come out the other end, the negative impacts will be relatively minimal.”

But the research sector isn’t out of the woods yet. “At this stage, no spring trials will be affected – unless we move back into Alert Level 4.”


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