Jul 15, 2015
IFTA tour story ripe with industry progress

Gary Pullano, associate editor for Fruit Growers News, is blogging this week from the International Fruit Tree Association's Regional Summer Tour in Washington state.

When you gather 170 people from seven countries, including those from nine U.S. states, all on three buses to learn about precision fruit production, you better have a good story to tell.

Well, that’ s not a problem in Washington state. That’s being confirmed in tall order for participants in this week’s Regional Summer Tour sponsored by the International Fruit Tree Association.

The tour is taking a circuitous route through, Richland, Mattawa, Basin City, Eltopia, Wapato, Naches, Selah, Yakima, Mattawa, George, Quincy, Richland – and all points in between.

The economics of fruit production has driven growers to monitor production tree-by-tree, no matter the size of the operation.

In a year marked by record-breaking high temperatures, fruit is running two weeks ahead of schedule.

Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension educator called it “a very early year. In my 27 years, early years are not good years – the fruit condition suffers.”

Despite what Lewis termed a “bit of a problem child here” due to the early season; the long-term viability of the industry is strong.

She said the biggest thing the state’s agriculture community has going for it is the success of the Columbia River Basin Reclamation Project.

It contributes greatly to the region’s ability to manage its water resources.

That reality enables the state’s fruit producers to concentrate on the development of precision horticulture techniques.

“At the end of the day it’s all about execution,” Lewis said. “It all comes down to execution and good labor supervision.”

Among those tackling execution head on is Dave Allan of Yakima Valley Orchards and Columbia View Ranch. Lewis said Allan has been a vocal leader for the development of efficient apple harvesting systems.

Allan showed off some pedestrian blocks of Buckeye Gala on Mark rootstock, which is a short, worker friendly vertical system with 20-foot by 10-foot spacing. He planted a one-acre block in 2010 and a three-acre block in 2013. In 2013, he harvested 68 bins an acre. In 2014, that became 100 bins an acre.

That shows that getting rid of ladders can be effective – if the economics pay off. And don’t diminish the high cost of labor injuries from ladder mishaps, Lewis noted.

Allan has bigger hopes for future labor-reducing harvesting solutions.

“Economics, horticulture and engineering have to run together,” he said. “I’m 71 years old, and I’m fairly optimistic that before I die we’re going to have a working prototype that will look halfway decent, and there will be refinements after that.

“The main reason I’m optimistic is there have been tremendous advances in imaging, in robotics and computers. I’m talking to people throughout the U.S. and internationally. I’m trying to be the cheerleader for this type of thing. I think people are very open to projects throughout the world.

And he said the reason is obvious.

“Everyplace I go and when I have guests visit here they have the same thing,” he said. “Labor is becoming more difficult to maintain and becoming more expensive. Here in Washington we have a huge infrastructure – buildings, packing lines. Our weakest link is accessing labor.

“H2-A is very expensive, getting close to a $20 bill an hour, once you factor in housing, transportation, administrative costs. It’s getting pretty doggone expensive. I think in the future we are very vulnerable if we don’t’ work on automation. But I think things are very optimistic.”

Lewis says Allan better be right about that – particularly for an apple industry in Washington that is full speed ahead in expanding its plantings and apple holdings.

“Is labor the No. 1 problem when they keep growing more trees?” Lewis wonders. “Sometimes I think, maybe not.”

Gary Pullano





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