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Tall, narrow trees make best apple orchards, keynoter says

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

The style of apple orchard that is most efficient and produces the highest quality fruit was discussed at the nation's biggest tree fruit meeting.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Orchards of the future and how to pick new apple varieties were the focus of discussion at the opening morning of the 109th annual Washington State Horticultural Association meeting on Dec. 2.

The three-day event and trade show at the Wenatchee Convention Center drew about 1,000 growers and affiliated industry people. It is the largest non-citrus tree fruit gathering of the year in the nation.

Orchard expansion has been explosive in the last five years, fruit prices have been good, but land prices are at an all time high and labor is dwindling, said Jeff Cleveringa, association board president, who heads research and development at Starr Ranch Oneonta in Wenatchee. Growers are looking at mechanization, orchard design, new varieties and other things to remain competitive as they produce more fruit, Cleveringa said.

“We have to strive to deliver the highest quality fruit in the world. That should be our No. 1 priority,” he said.

The keynote speaker, Terence Robinson, applied fruit crop physiologist at Cornell University, Geneva, N.Y., said apple orchards of the future will be planted on Geneva rootstocks for greater yield and resistance to fire blight and replant disease. Trees will be tall and narrow like spindles and planted at a high density of 1,200 to 1,300 per acre, he said.

At 6 feet, they will be half grown when planted and produce 3,300 bushels per acre in the first five years. It use to be that trees would have no yield for five to six years, he said.

Pruning will be minimal with only large limbs removed early on and many small limbs desired. Cycle-bar, hedge-like, mechanical pruning of small limbs will start in the fifth summer, he said. It will be done two successive years, followed by one year of winter hand pruning of larger limbs.

Disease, insects, weeds, crop load, nutrients, water, labor and harvest all will be managed more precisely for greater profitability, Robinson said. Simple platforms like the Bandit Xpress and Wafler for partial mechanization of pruning and harvest offer more for the money than more expensive machines that attempt to do more, he said. Human eye-hand coordination remains the most efficient means of picking with platforms, which also bring bins closer to the pickers, he said.

In Brazil, a fleet of six platform machines halved a grower’s pruning costs from $300,000 to $150,000, Robinson said.

Total annual labor for pruning, tree training, hand thinning and harvest is 235 hours per acre on a traditional orchard and 145 hours on spindle style, he said.

“Pear growers have been asleep at the switch, and if they stick with old orchards (of large trees) will be stuck with labor costs they can’t afford,” he said.

Others on a panel with Robinson discussed mechanization and whether spindle trees or V-trellis systems capture more light to grow fruit. Stefano Mussachi, tree fruit physiologist at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, Wenatchee, championed his bi-axis architecture, trees of two leaders, for better vigor control and capture of sunlight. If light reception is the same, V-trellis and spindle offer similar yields and spindle is cheaper, Robinson said.

Regarding mechanization, John Verbrugge, a Wapato grower, said people work at different speeds and a platform is only as fast as the slowest worker. “When a platform stops, six people stop,” he said.

Robinson countered he should set the speed and make people work faster.



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