Tree dig

A 20-year-old John Deere 450 uproots fruit trees for Van Well Nursery west of Quincy, Wash., on Nov. 8. The company also has two new machines from Belgium.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The weather has been ideal for the annual dig of fruit trees in Central Washington, but nurseries foresee a decline in sales as growers take a breather in planting the new Cosmic Crisp variety.

The more than a half-dozen commercial nurseries in the region saw their orders balloon the last couple of years as growers rushed to plant Cosmic Crisp, but now there’s a pause as growers wait to see how the apple does in the marketplace before planting more, says Peter Van Well Jr., president emeritus of Van Well Nursery in East Wenatchee.

Soft apple prices and high labor costs also are causing a drop in plantings, he said.

The average sale price is $10 per tree, and since nursery work is labor intensive, the nurseries feel rising labor costs. The state minimum wage is $12 per hour and increases to $13.50 on Jan. 1. The nurseries pay minimum wage for some positions and more for others.

The rise and fall of Cosmic Crisp plantings was predicted by PVM, of Yakima, the company helping Washington State University with the apple’s commercial launch.

There were 629,000 Cosmic Crisp trees planted in Washington orchards in 2017, 5.9 million in 2018, 4 million in 2019 and it’s expected to be 2 million per year in 2020 and moving forward for a while, said Lynnell Brandt, PVM president.

“It will be very much dependent on the pricing that is experienced with this year’s crop. With very good pricing, 2 million maybe understated,” Brandt said.

Lower apple returns have hindered growers’ abilities to replant but there remain a lot of orchards needing replanting because varieties in use are not paying for production costs, he said.

Brett Adams, co-owner of Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, said there’s a decrease in demand.

“It will affect total production for years to come. We hope it is just a little slowdown,” Adams said. “We still see an increase in demand for new varieties of rootstocks and apple cultivars.”

Todd Snyder, president and CEO of C&O Nursery in Wenatchee, also said there’s a slowdown in orders that will show up in tree numbers two years out since it takes two years to grow trees for orchard planting.

The commercial nurseries have had five to six really good years of sales, but the market appears to be softening, said Peter Van Well II, president and general manager of Van Well Nursery and the nephew of Peter Van Well Jr.

“Apple prices have not been very good and everyone is nervous about what’s in the ground and what to plant and where the industry will go next,” the younger Van Well said, adding that nurseries will have to work harder at sales.

More than half a dozen commercial nurseries produce and sell about 11 million fruit trees annually. Mostly it’s various varieties of apple trees, but they also produce pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums.

Another 6 million trees or more are dug by individual tree fruit companies for their spring plantings.

The trees are dug in November and kept cool and moist in warehouses through winter. The commercial nurseries ship them in early spring for planting in orchards throughout the Northwest, across the nation and into Canada, Mexico and a few other nations.

A Van Well crew enjoyed warmer weather the afternoon of Nov. 8 as they dug trees just west of Quincy.

No frozen ground. No mud holes from rain.

The driver sits high, about 12 feet above the ground, on the John Deere 450 digger. The machine straddles a row of trees, it’s U-shaped blade slicing through the ground under their roots, lifting the 4- to 10-foot tall trees and letting them plop back down.

Workers grab the trees, knock dirt away from the roots, bundle and load them on trucks or tractor-drawn wagons.

The annual dig can be tricky business.

Nurseries have a short window of three to four weeks from late October or early November, when trees go dormant, to just before the ground freezes.

“We started our dig Oct. 25 in Moses Lake and the 29th in Quincy. The weather has been absolutely fantastic. A lot of sunshine. Not a lot of wind or rain,” the younger Van Well said.

Good weather and two new Lauwers digging machines from Belgium enabled the company to finish its Moses Lake dig on Nov. 13 and its Quincy dig on Nov. 14, about two weeks earlier than normal, he said.

Van Well Nursery harvested 1.3 million trees of which there will be about a normal 6% loss on grading, he said.

Adams said Willow Drive Nursery began digging about 2 million finished trees and 4 million rootstock about Oct. 20 and planned to finish Nov. 20.

Snyder said C&O Nursery started its dig of 1.5 million trees Nov. 4 and will finish in the first week of December.

In 2014, the ground froze on Nov. 10 and didn’t thaw for two weeks. Valuable dig time was lost. The ground thawed, digging resumed only to be shut down again by rain producing too much mud. About one-third of the industry’s crop went undug until spring, straining the timing of shipments, the older Van Well said. Still it was not as bad as in 1978, the worst year in memory, he said.

In January of 2011, a severe freeze killed about one-fourth of the region’s 2012 production, a two-year setback since it takes two years to grow the trees.

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