Trellising fruit trees can help resilience in storms and cyclones. See how this farmer prepares for disaster.

For orchardists, cyclone damage can be catastrophic, destroying trees that can take up to a decade to reach peak profitability again. There is no such thing as removing cyclones as a risk to crops entirely; they are inevitable to those living in northern Australia.

After two devastating cyclones hit his farm in Far North Queensland, tropical fruit farmer Peter Salleras introduced new and innovative practices to his orchard.

After two highly damaging cyclones, Peter and Alison explored ways to protect their trees, and trialled and introduced trellising into their orchards.

In 2006, Category 4 Tropical Cyclone Larry thrashed the Salleras's tropical fruit farm in Far North Queensland. In the clean-up, Peter Salleras noticed something: Rambutan trees that had star pickets close to the trunks, to hold up irrigation lines, fared far better than the trees that didn't have that additional support.

'I thought, this is not a good business plan to grow trees for 6 years, and then just when your first crop's coming in, you get it blown out in one puff of wind,' Peter says. 'You just can't build a business on that.'

Peter's innovative thinking has led him to become Australia's leading expert in using trellising as cyclone protection, and he's travelled as far as Hawaii to share his knowledge with other farmers.

It's not only his knowledge and skills that have placed him as an industry leader, but his approach to disaster mitigation, which means being both mentally and practically prepared for the inevitability of natural disasters in Australia.

Peter's tips for disaster preparedness go beyond installing trellising systems and are relevant for any primary producer willing to trial new ideas and improve their mitigation practices.

Peter's tips for cyclone preparedness:

1: Do your research and see what's worked for other people

After the damage from Cyclone Larry, Peter and his wife, Alison, toured orchards in southern Australia that already use trellising systems.

In southern Australia, stone fruit trees are trellised to allow more light in, making it easier to access branches for harvest and improve crop efficiency. Peter planned to access those benefits while also strengthening trees and preventing them from being blown away in a cyclone.

Peter and Alison travelled extensively, learning from a number of farmers and academics about different types of trellising and how they could implement it on their farm. Peter also says where the information comes from is also important. While academics and agronomists provide valuable insight, first-hand knowledge from farmers of whatever you're investigating is vital, and often provides the realistic perspective you need.

'Look at people who are successful in what they're doing, they're the ones you've got to take notice of'

'Look at people who are successful in what they're doing, they're the ones you've got to take notice of,' Peter says. Peter and Alison researched not just the ideas, but the numbers and the plan on how they could build the infrastructure on their property before going forward with it.

2: If you've got an idea, ignore the doubters and start experimenting

The main style of trellising they use is the Tatura trellis, where the frame creates a 60 degree V shape.

When Peter and Alison started installing trellising with their fruit trees, they only told one person - their next door neighbour. Peter wanted to avoid the negativity and doubt from those he told, knowing that most people would raise concerns as to why the ideas wouldn't work. 'Most people want to stay the same,' he says.

Rather than second guess their research and ideas, they decided to go ahead with the process and trial it without external pressures and doubts. 'We just did it, and we never looked back,' he says.

But while they didn't want to have doubt put into their minds from external sources, they did hedge their bets, starting with small trials and building their way up. Now they have approximately 80% of their trees grown on some form of post and wire training system.

The main style of trellising they use is the Tatura trellis, where the frame creates a 60 degree V shape, in which trees are trained to create a V shaped canopy. The frame is traditionally timber, with high-tensile wires that are shifted until the trees reach optimal size.

As the trees grow, scaffold branches are trained to follow the bottom wires of the V trellis. The branches are manually manipulated to grow with the wires, with the V shape allowing for higher light intervention and distribution of the tree. The creator of the Tatura orchard system does offer a paid manual on how to adopt the system.

They also use a T-shaped trellis for some varieties, and wire supports that run down the centre of a row of trees.

3: Mental strength and preparedness are important

'I think it's important to leave it there just to remind us it will happen again, we just don't know which year. And we've got to be prepared for it.'

Taped to the fridge in the communal lunch area in Fruit Forest Farms' packing shed are photos of the damage after Cyclone Yasi, a Category 5 that caused $3.5 billion in damage across Queensland in 2011. 'Some people say "oh you should forget about it, you should move on and don't be negative about it," ' Peter says. 'But I think it's important to leave it there just to remind us it will happen again, we just don't know which year. And we've got to be prepared for it.'

This photo on Fruit Forest Farms' communal fridge serves as a poignant reminder of their resilience and the importance of staying prepared.

The inevitability of cyclones means preparedness is essential, Peter says, particularly for those who earn their income from their block of land.

Not only do Peter and Alison use trellising to strengthen their trees but, with enough warning before a cyclone, they also prune excess branches and keep orchards tidy to prevent wind drag. Their greenhouse has detachable shade cloth, which can be quickly removed, and their bird netting is only over trees seasonally, to have less infrastructure likely to be damaged.

Having now prepared for multiple cyclones over the years, the Fruit Forest Farm staff even have a checklist at the back of their minds, which includes things like getting fragile nursery stock safely into cold rooms or vehicles away from the wind before a tropical cyclone hits.

The preparation both mentally and physically grants them peace of mind: that cyclones will come again, but as they have before, they will again survive them.

4: It's an ongoing process - never stop learning

While the Salleras's have now had trellises installed for several decades, they don't see it as a finished, complete project. Just like in all aspects of farming, Peter says he's constantly talking to other people, finding more things to trial and implement, upgrading and improving practices.

Scientist and developer of the Tatura trellising system, Bas van den Ende, has visited their farm several times, which Peter says has been a great opportunity to learn how to better train the trees to grow on the trellis. As some of the species the Salleras's grow have never been trellised before, they're constantly trialling new ways to train the trees, and in some cases, changing the trellising style to work better for different crops.

'We never know it all, because things are always changing,' Peter says.

5: It's also about financial preparation

But even in preparing a farm to the best of your ability before a cyclone, the clean-up and recovery time can cause havoc to your bottom line. By building disaster preparedness into your business model, Peter says farmers can have less stress when the inevitable occurs.

By building disaster preparedness into your business model... farmers can have less stress when the inevitable occurs

While state and federal governments often offer low-interest recovery loans in the wake of natural disasters, Peter and Alison try to avoid needing to apply for them. The uncertainty of how long it would take for a crop to pay back the loans, especially if hit with another natural disaster, is a risk they don't want to take. Instead, they prefer to have a saved nest egg for when disaster occurs.

One of the available options to do that is through Farm Management Deposits (FMD), which are provided by select financial institutions. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries describes FMD as a scheme that 'allows eligible primary producers to set aside pre-tax income which they can draw on in future years when they need it, such as for restocking or replanting when conditions start to improve'.

Farm Management Deposits are only eligible to primary producers as individuals, not to companies, and can't exceed $800,000.

More information on Farm Management Deposits is available on the Australian Taxation Office website.


Just 5 years after Cyclone Larry in 2006 spurred Peter into investigating trellising, his trials with trellising were tested when North Queensland was struck by Tropical Cyclone Yasi, the eye of which crossed Salleras's farm.

Out of the 76 free-standing rambutans, 70 were lost during Larry. With Yasi, there was a 100% survival rate of the 450 replacement trees planted with trellising, despite the increased severity of that cyclone. Not only did the trees survive, but one of Peter's soursop won champion fruit at the Tully Show 6 months later.

Peter says the initial cost of installing trellising is quickly earnt back through not needing to replace trees and the ability to get productivity back faster after a cyclone. This reduces or eliminates variables, which makes the Salleras's valuable as suppliers to wholesale markets.

Beyond cyclone preparedness, Peter has found the Tatura method of trellising is helping them improve their yields as well as increased harvest efficiency. There's also better coverage for spraying inputs.

The success of the trellises in improving the structural integrity of the trees also means Peter no longer sees strong rootstock as a prerequisite for tree genetics. He now prefers to pick and choose genetics and varieties based on consumer preferences.

Final Tips

Regardless of whether installing trellising is the right solution for you, Peter has some final tips for clean-up, once the cyclone has passed.

  • Have chainsaws and machinery ready, fuelled and close by before the cyclone hits, to help the clean-up and to restore access from the property to the outside world.
  • Power outages can go on for several weeks after a cyclone and so generators or solar power are a great backup to keep things running until power lines can be restored.
  • For trees that have fallen in the cyclone, it can often be better to leave them down and pruned rather than to stand them back up, for risk of further damaging the roots. Sunburn to the trunks is the next biggest risk. Have a white, water-based paint at the ready to paint the trunk and branches, which will work as a sunscreen.