Sep 6, 2016
New York state growers adapt to market, challenges

Paul Wafler’s apple production management journey has landed – at least for now.

The Wolcott, New York grower has found contentment and profits based on successful development of a harvest platform that was on display at his farm in July during 11 stops on the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) Study Tour in upstate New York.

“From harvest to the tree to the picking,” Wafler told tour participants. “I’ve been chasing this stuff for many, many years. I have closure. I’m 53. I’m going to keep shoving trees in the ground for 10 more years until my kids want to fight me. And after that, they’re going to be all over the robotics. If they’re not in the robotics, I’m going to fight them.

“This is a short window to be in,” he said. “I feel pretty good about it, because my father Fritz taught me very well. He says ‘when you get in the train station, get on the first train or don’t get on.’”

“I’ve been a little hesitant in chasing club varieties, but I haven’t been hesitant in chasing dollars with conventional varieties,” Wafler said. “We’re doing quite well with this system.”

Huron Fruit Systems was founded by Paul and his brother, Walter Wafler. All of the design, development work and testing has been done by Paul at Wafler Farms/Wafler Nursery. Wafler Farms has worked for the last 10 years to achieve all goals necessary to get high yields, quality and lower costs.

The harvest system has been developed to work in conjunction with high density plantings and is specifically targeted to work with orchard spacings of 10 to 14 feet. The system consists of a picking platform and a bin trailer that can support up to four picking platforms.

Wafler said the arrangement, which can include a video system with playback capabilities to assess workflow tendencies and performance, has “helped tremendously with productivity, not only at harvest time but with all orchard work.”

“This machine was built around picking – that’s the first priority,” Wafler said. “There’s great efficiencies having a platform that is efficient to do the whole aspect of harvest.”

Wafler’s philosophy is to work in terms of feet per minute in the orchard/ nursery, and to keep the flow moving. The preferred planting system is a tall spindle with tipped trees, top varieties being Gala, Honeycrisp, Fuji and EverCrisp.

The operation has 450 fruit acres, including 200 nursery acres. There are 20 full-time employees and 60 to 80 part- time workers.

“The tree design here is 7 by 13 feet and we want to be 11 1/2 feet tall with our crop and about 3, 3.2 feet in the middle. So we’re at 10-foot spacing. Each row, the narrow and the wide row, almost looks the same at the top.

“What’s different (about) the tall spindle here is we’re 1,400 trees to the acre,” he said. “Our finished product is going to be taller than a super spindle, but we’re running the three feet between the trees. That’s important because the light interception has to be able to still get down to the tree into the wide area (of the canopy). I’m trying to bring the light in, popping through the little nooks and crannies through the tree.”

He said the system makes it easy to monitor quality all the way through the process. Data is collected from the harvester, as well as the supervisor. Every picker is graded according to quality.

“Everything can be quantified quickly,” Wafler said. “We pick with 12 to 14 machines at harvest, 5 to 8 individuals per machine. At the end of the day when we turn the machines off, everybody leaves the field.”

The tipped design of the rows enables workers easier access to the tree from the platform.

“With a straight tree, you have to lean into the tree or swing on a trapeze. This brings the tree right into you, but your body is out of the tree. Our workers are all able to achieve quality and quantity with this tipped tree.”

Unfamiliar challenge

IFTA toured western New York amid an uncharacteristic drought in the region that challenged growers who usually aren’t accustomed to having drip irrigation considerations land at the top of their priority lists.

Charles Pettit
Charles Pettit

Charles Pettit of Pettit Farms in Medina, New York, expressed regret his farm was not more prepared to handle this year’s extended dry spell, but such an approach has been at odds with his philosophy for orchard production in the area.

“I’m in sort of an embarrassing position here today,” he told tour attendees. “I fought irrigation tooth and nail and realize from what’s going on in the industry I’m not quite up to speed. Whether that’s going to change with the next generation, we’ll see.”

Pettit Farms is a diversified operation with corn, soybeans and small grains to accompany apples as the only fruit commodity.

“To me, it’s a very good combination,” said Pettit, who runs the farm with his brother Tom, and son, Daniel. “One of the great things of being diversified is we have an old orchard that’s been planted to soybeans, that is full of weeds that would have impacted an apple orchard that could have been there.

“Nearby is a field that has been corn, soybeans and small grains for 35 or 40 years. Weed pressure is very low and allows us to grow a pretty much a weed-free apple orchard the first year.”

He said the block used prior to the new apple block planting had been managed with 50-foot tile sections.

“So when you want to start a farm you need to find where water runs downhill or you need a pumping station and an outlet to get rid of it,” he said.

“When we went into planting apples few years ago, we went to 25-foot tile sections,” Pettit said. “My thought is if we’re not going to water the trees, give that tree every possible chance to develop a good root system without the irrigation. It’s a roll of the dice, and this year we might mean it when we say this is the worst year yet.”

Fruiting wall formula

Lamont Fruit Farm/Fish Creek Orchards in Albion, New York is owned by Rod Farrow, Jose Iniguez and Jason Woodworth.

The operation has 495 acres of apples and another 30 acres of nursery that produced 240,000 liners in 2016.

“We focus our efforts on maximizing income and profitability by growing high percentages of uniform fruit of targeted sizes,” Farrow said. “We have also made it a priority to develop global partnerships with the goal of having access to the best new varieties as we see that as an important part of future financial success.

“Our personal goal that we set on the farm is that we’re going to have 95 percent extra fancy packout of all the apples on the tree – not just what we put in the bin,” Farrow said. “And of those fruit, about 80 to 90 percent are going to be in three target sizes. So it’s all about trying to grow uniformity.”

Farrow said he saw a super spindle apple planting system during an IFTA tour a few decades ago.

He said the farm started planting the first trial system in 1996, “and really liked the way things went. So in 1999, we transferred completely … all we’ve planted is this 11-by-2 (with 200 trees per acre). We used to call it super spindle. I’d think I’d like to call it a fruiting wall today. It’s purely designed on being able to grow very uniform apples from top to bottom – uniform maturity, uniform color. Everything about it is very easily reproduced, easy to manage.”

Lamont Fruit Farm went to B.9 rootstocks after one year.

“We had M.9 the first year we did this and decided with the varieties at the time – we were planting primarily Gala and Fuji – and with the fire blight risk we wanted a rootstock that had some fire blight resistance. Bud 9, at that point, people were almost asking you to take them, so that fit in pretty nicely in our program, too, because we needed a lot of rootstock, and they were probably a third of the price of some other rootstocks that were in strong demand.”

Farrow said Lamont Fruit Farm “hasn’t trialed a great deal of Geneva rootstocks – which is no knock on the Geneva program. We just happened to find one that we really love, and we’re kind of in an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mode at the moment.”

Nursery advantage

Grower Scott VanDeWalle runs VanDeWalle Fruit Farm in Sodus, New York. There are 560 acres in production, and 220 acres of open ground on the farm established in 1983.

VanDeWalle Fruit Farm has preferred a 12-by-2.5 tall spindle system, but going forward the orchardists are pursuing a tall spindle/fruiting wall of 10-by-2.

Scott VanDeWalle works with Gennaro Fazio of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service on trials of some pending releases of Geneva rootstocks.

Gennaro Fazio
Gennaro Fazio

Geneva rootstocks are not being propagated in VanDeWalle’s nursery, which is overseen by Mike Maloney. The nursery has 10 acres of rootstock and 10 acres of finished trees, producing 400,000 on one farm and 600,000 on another.

“If you do want to start an on-farm nursery, you can’t do it haphazardly — it takes the correct site, the correct preparation,” Maloney said on a tour of the nursery. “It takes having the rootstock lined up, which is a big challenge in this day and age. But as progressive farmers like yourselves, you can grow a pretty nice nursery. Not perfect. Not West Coast trees. But you can grow a tree that will fit very nicely in a high-density system.”

Using B9 rootstock, Maloney favors a training system “that’s been 3-by-12 for a long time. I think that’s going to come down to 2-by-2.5-by-10. We’re still looking at a lot of trees. But the tree coming out of a nursery doesn’t have to be super special. It just has to be a nice tree and have great roots to get started. We’re looking to push them early, fill the space, and looking for cropping in year three.”

Other benefits of an on-farm nursery as suggested by Maloney:

“In order to get as much roots to the orchard, we’re able to dig trees in the fall and plant them the same day in most cases, or even early spring – earlier than what you’d get from your nurseries. They’re not geared up to ship trees in the fall necessarily. That’s a tremendous advantage to having your own on farm nursery.

“You also can control your plant availability. On the downside, if you call the rootstock people to get a rootstock for your own nursery, you might have a waiting list there, too. You need to start something and keep it going year after year. If you get in line with the rootstock people, then you’d have that lined up.

The cost of the trees is obviously less with your own on-farm nursery. There’s a reason for that – now we’re incurring all of the risk. If you order a thousand trees from a nursery, they deliver to you a thousand trees. If I plant a thousand trees, some years I might only harvest 800. We accept that risk as part of the cost savings. And we don’t have to declare a profit on those trees when we dig them, so we can put that off.”

Maloney emphasized the importance of “making sure it is a great site. Don’t go to a marginal piece of ground and say we don’t use this for anything else, and plant a nursery. Any wet spots that have been wet historically will probably not grow very nice trees. Make sure you have the labor lined up when it needs to be done. And make sure you’re prepared to spray on Sunday.”

Re-grafting takes place at times “to address a poor decision – even in the nursery,” Maloney said. “Variety is king.”

“Budding is a tough job and will be among your highest costs,” he said. “Rootstock costs about a dollar, but with the bud, you’re probably looking at about that same price.”

Rootstock research

USDA-ARS researcher Gennaro Fazio’s work on Geneva rootstocks is benefitting from a five-year grant to determine the best ways they can be used and managed, particularly how they can be grown in certain locations where apples couldn’t be grown.

“If you have a more efficient rootstock that can absorb nitrogen, do you need the same amount of nitrogen application in your orchard? Probably not,” Fazio said. “We need to learn how to manage these new rootstocks so they sing like (Luciano) Pavarotti. There a many things you learn about new rootstocks when they start to hit 500,000 trees (distributed), and then 1 million trees.

“As new environments are tested, such as scion varieties, dirty wood, different location soils, wind issues, and so on, we learn more about the strength and weaknesses of the rootstocks that we’ve released,” he said.

“Some issues that came up recently include some virus infection of scion wood being placed on Geneva 935,” Fazio said. “It turns out there are strains of latent viruses and we found a couple that do affect Geneva 935. We have to learn to manage that a little bit better as nurseries, as a group and also learn the science about which viruses are affecting it and where it came from.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor


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