ORONDO, Wash. — Seemingly endless rolls of white cloth netting stretch over acres and acres of young Gala apple trees in an orchard along Highway 97 about 16 miles north of Orondo.
It’s a new sight for frequent travelers on the highway. Workers have been busy for several weeks assembling the cloth into sausage-like tubes, which they spread over trellises. The intent is protect apples from sunburn and wind.
More than 25 acres have been covered, another 10 soon will be and eventually, in another year or two, all 130 acres of Auvil Fruit Co.’s Ranch 5 will have the netting, says John Baile, assistant orchard manager at Auvil Fruit Co. in Orondo.
“Sunburn is probably the biggest cullage factor we have. Some blocks probably range up to 30 percent damage from sunburn,” said Brett Drescher, the company’s safety officer and former orchard manager.
Next to sunburn, wind causing fruit to rub limbs is the second greatest factor damaging fruit, Drescher said.
Auvil Fruit Co. has used netting, in a more limited fashion, for years to protect cherries from birds but it’s been expanding its use in apples for wind and sunburn protection. About two-thirds of the company’s 1,200 acres of apple orchards on the west bank of the Columbia River south of Vantage are covered now, Baile said. That effort began more than 10 years ago.
At Ranch 5, new Gala trees were planted a year ago on V-trellis. Full fruit production is another year or so away. One reason to cover the trees now is to protect new growth from wind, Baile said.
It’s a pedestrian orchard. That means trees will be kept about 6 feet tall and all the pruning, picking and other work will be done by workers on the ground without ladders. The cloth is unfurled in 32-foot-wide strips, each covering four rows and 8.5 feet high. Toward the highway the netting slopes upward to 13 feet high to keep pesticide spray drift from reaching passing vehicles.
The cloth comes in big bundles from Extenday, a horticultural fabric company in New Zealand. The trellis system is designed to handle pressure because cloth can act like a sail in wind, Baile said.
Lee Kalcsits, tree fruit physiologist at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, reported on research on the benefits of netting at last winter’s WSU Northcentral Washington Apple Day in Wenatchee.
Beside hail, wind and bird protection, netting reduces heat, sunburn, light intensity and soil temperatures but increases photosynthesis, he said. It also reduces stress on trees.
Different colors of netting modify the spectra of light reaching trees that may result in different physiological responses, he said. Those responses are still to be determined.
Netting can last seven to 10 years and costs $9,000 to $12,000 per acre for well-built systems and $3,000 to $5,000 per acre for simpler systems, Kalcsits said.
Auvil Fruit Co. will continue to invest in cloth netting, Baile said, because benefits in reduced cullage “far outweigh” costs.
“Because of the investment it’s hard for small growers to commit. You have to have the right varieties and production levels for it to pencil out,” he said.
Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala and some Granny Smith are among the varieties, along with club or managed varieties, for which it works, he said.
Not a lot of growers use netting, but Baile said he thinks more growers will turn to it as they see the benefits.
“It always takes someone leading the way and others follow suit,” he said.
The late Grady Auvil, founder of Auvil Fruit, led the industry into Fuji production years ago and in the early 1970s into Granny Smith.
“A lot of people laughed at him. A green apple? Apples were red. But Granny Smith from New Zealand were selling for more than Reds (Red Delicious),” Baile said.