Grower urges thinning of old orchards
Intercropping can improve profitability for new stands
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
When Gene Tinker took over a 45-acre hazelnut orchard near Pleasant Hill, Ore., more than a decade ago, he was faced with a dilemma.
The trees had originally been planted at double density in the 1960s, but about one-fourth of the orchard had never been thinned.
That portion was seriously cramped after roughly four decades, impeding light penetration and ease of harvest.
Removing the excess trees would provide a clear benefit, but it would also be a massive effort.
Tinker decided to bite the bullet and complete the long-neglected thinning. As expected, taking the thickly clustered trees out was no simple feat.
"A lot of times they wouldn't fall," he said. "I had to use a tractor to pull them out."
Neighboring trees were injured in the process, and grinding down burly stumps added to the challenge. The entire job took about three years to finish, but Tinker said he doesn't have any regrets.
The new spacing gives him more room to maneuver. More light also filters through to the trees' lower branches, thereby improving yield.
Even so, Tinker advised farmers not to procrastinate at the annual Nut Growers Society of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, held recently in Portland.
"When those trees start to touch, it's time to start thinking about taking those trees out," he told farmers. "Don't let them interlock."
That advice is especially timely now that many growers are planting new orchards.
The increase is being driven by strong demand for hazelnuts in China and the release of new varieties resistant to Eastern filbert blight, a fungal pathogen that once threatened the industry's future.
Farmers in Oregon -- the major hazelnut-growing state -- have been planting about 2,800 acres a year since 2009, adding to the roughly 30,000 acres already in the ground, according to a survey by the Nut Growers Society.
Though the method requires thinning later on, planting twice as many trees per row allows farmers to increase the per-acre yield of young orchards and achieve profitability earlier.
The revenue boost more than offsets the cost of additional trees, said Dan Keeley, a hazelnut farmer near St. Paul, Ore. "The trees used to be pretty expensive but there's more competition now."
Another way to improve cash flow during the orchard's early years is to plant a row crop like wheat or clover between the trees.
Keeley estimates that with such "intercropping," a farmer can break even financially on a new orchard after eight years, rather than the ordinary 10 years.
Before the orchard becomes profitable, the financial deficit per acre for intercropped orchards is less than $2,000, compared to nearly $2,600 for regular orchards, he said.
Intercropping does involve some complications, Keeley said. "If you're working the ground along these rows, you tend to leave lumps and bumps and ditches."
Row crops are often in a fragile state when hazelnut trees need to be sprayed with fungicide, so farmers should conduct these applications with an ATV or another light sprayer, instead of heavier machinery, he said.
To reduce confusion, farmers should try to identify pesticides that are registered for their hazelnut trees and the row crop, Keeley said. That way, they won't have to explain to regulators why a chemical labeled for hazelnuts ended up on wheat or another crop.
Growers should also pay especially close attention to pruning and staking their hazelnut trees, thus preventing them from flopping over and getting injured during row crop operations.
Keeley said he learned this the hard way.
"There's quite a few of them that got combined," he said.