Crews battle wind, cold to plant trees

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Rolando Martin, production manager at Washington Fruit and Produce Co. in Yakima, Wash., and planter Jesus Gama show how the three-row planting machine works at Hound Orchard on Royal Slope. They were planting Gala apple trees March 22 but quit early because wind was drying the roots.

Growers expand orchards of popular fruit, new styles

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

ROYAL CITY, Wash. -- On a good day with a three-row planter, a crew can plant 20 to 25 acres of young apple trees at roughly 1,000 trees per acre.

But weather often disrupts. Planting stopped early on March 22 for a crew of Washington Fruit and Produce Co. because wind was drying tree roots before they could get into the ground. Other days it's too cold or wet to work.

But through it all, the Yakima company is on schedule to plant another 500 acres of apple trees this spring. It's been planting at that rate for several years and intends to for several more to beef up its orchards, said Dan Plath, who manages Washington Fruit's thousands of acres of orchards with his brother Cliff.

With the exception of 2008, apple returns have been relatively good since 2003 and that is resulting in more new plantings than removal of old trees industry-wide, Plath said.

New high-coloring Fuji, Gala and Cripps Pink are scarce because growers are buying them, he said. The supply of Malling 9-T337 rootstock, the industry standard, isn't keeping up with demand because of all the new orchards going in, he said.

The problem is exacerbated by growers replacing young trees damaged in the freezes of this past winter, he said.

Most people still buy finished trees budded onto rootstock from nurseries, but growers are saving money and buying rootstock and doing their own scion grafting or budding, he said.

Washington Fruit is planting 120 acres of new Fuji and Gala this spring at Hound Orchard on the Royal Slope about halfway between Royal City and Othello. It is planting rootstock on another 40 acres for Granny Smith, which will be budded in the fall. Planting will finish on 60 more acres next year.

Washington Fruit bought the orchard last fall as a planting site and tore out the 15-year-old organic Braeburn that had been there. The trees were chipped and the soil fumigated.

"We have enough Braeburn and they typically lag behind other varieties we handle in price," Plath said.

The company planted other sites this season and typically plants from mid-February to mid-May.

To plant, six men sit on the back of the three-row planter drawn by a large tractor. Bundles of trees ride on platforms on either side of the seats. Three shanks, one for each row, dig the holes every four feet. The men on either side of each shank take turns placing trees in the holes.

The planter adjusts up to 12-foot-wide rows. This day, the rows are 10 feet apart for Fuji trees. The planter, patterned after one developed by Allan Bros. Fruit Inc., of Yakima, was custom built and costs enough that there are few like it in the state, production manager Rolando Martin said. Single-row planters or planting by hand is more common, he said.

A crew follows behind the planter, tilting each tree for a V-trellis system and tamping down the soil around each tree with their boots. Others install posts for trellises and drip irrigation lines.

Throughout the industry, planting costs $15,000 to $25,000 an acre.

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