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Tree planters keep quick pace

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

The Washington apple industry continues planting more trees because of good returns in recent years. It is replacing old trees with newer varieties and strains and expanding production.

QUINCY, Wash. — Kevin Rodriguez and some five dozen other planters kept a good pace, their every move quick.

Digging holes in freshly tilled soil. Grabbing trees. Dropping the roots in the holes, a tree at a time, scooping the dirt back in around them with shovels and their feet. Tamping down and onto the next.

They worked quickly, Rodriguez said, to make $100 a day — $3.60 for every dozen planted. Quickness also prevented tree roots from getting too dried out in the air.

“It’s not easy work, but I can’t complain,” he said. “What doesn’t kill you makes you strong. I’m learning a little agriculture and that’s cool. I count it a blessing because I need the work.”

Rodriguez, 26, of Los Angeles, recently came north to find work. He was in a crew of 60 planting 60 acres of Honeycrisp apple trees in an orchard west of Quincy on April 28. The orchard, managed by Stemilt AgServices, Wenatchee, is being converted to Honeycrisp from Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Fuji.

The old trees were torn out last fall. The soil was prepared and fumigated. Justin Whitman, an assistant area manager for Stemilt AgServices, said the planting would take about three-and-a-half days.

There are various machines that aid in orchard planting, but they all require planting before the installation of trellis poles and wire and irrigation lines.

“We do the trellis wire and irrigation all ahead of time and go through with a big crew and plant by hand. We found it’s cheaper to do it this way because you’re not doing trellis and irrigation around the trees,” said Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices.

Soil was loosened by tractors for hand digging, trellis poles were installed every 12 feet in rows 12 feet apart and 12 feet high. Five trellis wires from 2 to 12 feet above the ground were strung and two irrigation lines, one for drip to the ground and a second feeding overhead sprinklers, installed.

Trees are three feet apart, about 1,200 per acre. They will fruit in three years with a goal of 70 to 80 bins per acre in seven years, said Whitman.

Trees will be stripped of fruiting blossoms the first two year to keep them growing to fill trellises because once they crop they stop growing on their dwarf rootstock, he said. They then maintain their 12-by-3-foot size with minimal pruning.

Rows, tree and trellis structure is all designed, Whitman said, to accommodate harvest, pruning and other orchard work with new platforms instead of ladders.

The cost of planting orchards runs $15,000 to $30,000 per acre, industry officials have said. Variables include whether land has to be purchased and old orchards removed.

The trend of replacing old orchards with newer varieties at higher densities and higher packout percentage potential continues, said Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee. It’s done to meet market demand, he said.

“So even if acreage doesn’t change that much the amount of packable fruit will continue to grow about 3 to 5 percent a year,” he said. “This year’s crop should be above average if we continue to have weather as good as it’s been.”

The last survey of Washington apple acreage was released by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in August 2011. At that time, there were 167,489 acres, a drop of 3.2 percent in five years but the total number of trees had risen 25.4 percent from 75 million to 94 million. That was the truer measurement of production capacity, Mayer said.

Stemilt AgServices planted 200 acres of new orchard in Mattawa this spring, Gale said.

Several companies have been adding acreage annually. Three years ago, Washington Fruit and Produce Co., Yakima, said it had been expanding by about 500 acres annually and would continue to do so for several years. McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee, has been expanding.


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