Orchardist tries different planting densities, improved irrigation

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

WILDER, Idaho -- At Henggeler Orchards and Packing in Western Idaho, doing things the same old way is no longer an option.

As operating costs and global competition have increased, the 107-year-old family orchard and fruit packing business has been forced to make changes.

Orchard manager Chad Henggeler, a fourth-generation Idaho fruit grower, started experimenting with high-density plantings about five years ago.

He started with about 645 apple trees per acre, then bumped it up to 900 trees per acre. About a year ago, he used a dwarf rootstock to put in a block of Gala trees at about 1,300 trees to the acre -- his highest density planting yet.

"It's been a gradual evolution," Henggeler said. "I'm not sure what the optimum density will be."

Combined with a trellis system and drip irrigation, the high-density plantings are intended to produce more fruit on fewer acres while using less water and fertilizer.

The new system isn't cheap. It costs about $10,000 an acre for the rootstock, drip lines, trellis materials and the labor to have it all installed.

But Henggeler fully expects the high initial investment to pay off in the long run. The new blocks should have a life span of 15 to 20 years.

The drip irrigation system is expected to use about a third of the water a standard sprinkler irrigation system uses, Henggeler said. The system is connected to probes that measure the soil moisture at depths of 12, 24 and 36 inches and automatically adjust the drip flow.

The new high-density orchards are also expected to use up to 50 percent less fertilizer, with applications made directly through the drip irrigation lines.

"We'll apply smaller amounts of fertilizer more often and put it right where it's needed next to the tree," Henggeler said.

About 40 acres of the Henggelers' 700 acres of tree fruits are now under drip irrigation.

About 65 to 70 percent of their total fruit production is apples, but they also grow peaches, plums, prunes and cherries.

The dwarf apple trees grow to a height of about 10 feet. That allows much of the picking to be done from the ground, a boon for worker safety.

"We want to get away from those tall ladders," Henggeler said. "When we do use ladders, we want them to be short ladders."

Platforms will replace ladders for much of the pruning and thinning work in the tops of the trees.

The trellis system trains the young rootstock in the first year or two then as the trees begin to bear fruit, it supports the branches. The goal is to get the most out of each small tree.

"We want to grow fruit, not wood," Henggeler said.

The smaller width of the trees allows more light to penetrate into the center, boosting sugar content and apple skin color. It also makes for easier spraying, with less drift, Henggeler said.

Another benefit: The high-density plantings reach full production in about the fourth year compared with eight or nine years for the larger trees in conventional orchards.

Becoming more efficient is the name of the game, Henggeler said.

"Our costs go up about 3 percent a year, and we have to offset that with better efficiency and better quality," he said.

While the Henggelers can change the way they plant and grow trees, they have no control over the labor market. It's becoming more and more difficult for them to find workers.

From August through October, they employ about 100 field workers and another 75 workers in the packing shed.

Like many ag employers, they support AgJOBS, a bill first proposed several years ago that would revamp the H-2A guest worker program.

"Labor is about 60 percent of our overall costs" Henggeler said. "In the future, we don't know how much of a labor force we're going to have or how cost-effective it will be."

Chad Henggeler

Age: 37

Hometown: Fruitland, Idaho

Family: Married, two daughters

Education: University of Idaho, 1996, bachelor's degree in political science, minor in agricultural economics

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