Apr 21, 2017
Washington growers focus on top apples

Several apple growers shared their strategies for taking product “From Bud to Bin,” which was the theme of the 60th annual International Fruit Tree Association conference in Wenatchee, Washington, Feb. 19-23.

The conference was structured with two days of orchard tours, two days of educational sessions and a ton of networking in between. Emphasis was placed on trends and planning what to plant, how to prepare and how to grow high-value varieties. Production systems were a focus, and crop load balance – including how to target fruit and optimum return – were discussed. Knowing when to harvest upon crop maturity also was explored.

In the first day of tours, Jake Robison, a fourth-generation grower at Robison Orchards in Chelan, said he’s part of a transition plan to take over the business, focusing the 125-acre operation on identifying high-value varieties in order to remain profitable.

Robison outlined the succession planning that started on the family farm four years ago. It’s anticipated it will take seven years to complete the process.

It’s all about using high-value varieties to avoid having to compete with larger growers on lower-value selections. The operation is located on sloping hills, unlike flatter ground to which larger growers likely have access, he said.

“What’s good for the business is good for the business,” Robison said. “The higher the value, the better. We’re always looking for the next big thing that would make us a lot of money.”

Harvesting 3,600 bins of apples in 2016, the effort came with 30 percent of the orchard under renovation and out of production, said Robison, who topworked a Scifresh (Jazz) block.

The top 10 rows are on M.26 rootstock topworked in 2013 and trained to an angled canopy. The rest of the block is a 12-feet by 5-feet vertical planting on M.26 that was topworked in 2006 onto second-leaf Golden. Also, 2.5 acres at the bottom of the block were planted with rootstock in 2015 and budded to Scifresh.

Robison Orchards has 4 acres of Scilate (Envy), 15 acres of Honeycrisp, 2.5 acres Granny Smith and 12 acres planted but not bearing of Sugarbee. Pear selections include Anjou (9 acres), Bosc (2 acres) and Bartlett (4 acres). There also are plantings of Black Pearl and Lapin cherries.

Part of the strategy, Robison said, is to graft over some of the weaker market varieties, including Gala, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Braeburn and Red Delicious, in favor of better performing varieties such as Envy.

“This gives us the chance to increase profitability in those blocks until they’re ready for a full replant,” he said.

High-value approach

Jim Divis, a grower in Brewster with 180 orchard acres (50 planted to Honeycrisp), favors a multileader V system featuring high-value varieties such as Pazazz and Pacific Rose.

He noted Pazazz at harvest has more sugar and acid than Honeycrisp, but the flesh calcium content is 10 times that found in Honeycrisp.

He displayed a block of Fuji on M.9 with the two leaders trained in the tree row and supported by a trellis. Three rows were mechanically hedged in early November to demonstrate how hedging can be used to format the orchard for machine assist and robotic harvest.

Adjacent to the Fuji is a freestanding Honeycrisp block on M.106, with two leaders per stump directed into the drive row.

Divis believes it’s difficult to have a balanced Fuji tree, but Honeycrisp has provided a better option for management. He said 95 percent of his orchards with two leaders are uniform, enabling the farm to easily double production without doubling the number of trees required.

Now able to balance the vigor in each leader in Fuji and Honeycrisp, Divis said it required considerable diligence. He said if there was a leader that wasn’t keeping up, “we would head that leader to get it to catch up in a more vigorous state. If some branches over-cropped, we would thin them down a little more.”

Divis, general manager of Honeybear Growers (with its proprietary Pazazz variety), isn’t shooting for the best-looking tree, only in getting the two leaders to be matched in size so they are able to compete with each other. He’s also fond of using foggers to manage sunburn, instead of overhead sprinklers.

Del Feigal, president of orchard management for Auvil Fruit in Orondo, showed off the operation’s latest innovation – a short, four-wire trellis with 8-foot centers. It’s essentially a pedestrian production system when compared to the tall eight-wire system. The 8-feet by 2.25-feet short trellis allows for 2,400 trees per acre, as does Auvil’s tall, angled, 12- by 1.5-foot trellis.

A heavy emphasis is put on water and nutrient management to manage growth in the short orchard, with a goal of 100 bins to the acre on 25 percent less fruiting area, Feigal said.

Feigal said the short orchard is worker friendly, allowing him to avoid training employees on how to use equipment and ladders in the orchard. He said it has reduced operational costs by 10 percent to 12 percent, and goes a long way in keeping the orchard organized.

“A taller system needs more equipment, more people to manage,” Feigal said. “That’s one of the advantages of using the shorter trellis. We also are able to get into production sooner.”

With the sloping location of the orchard, Auvil uses shade cloth to curb sunburn, but not in favor of hampering color. Varietal differences will make it necessary to open the cloth canopy as harvest approaches.

Auvil Fruit has 1,900 planted acres of apples, with 500 acres open. It harvested 117,000 bins in 2016. The company’s organized canopy systems at its Vantage location were developed to combat the environment. With the introduction of Apogee, the system increased its formality by fastening permanent fruiting limbs to the 16 wires per row.

Hand blossom thinning was implemented, as the formal training allowed the pruners to reduce the crop to a manageable level, Feigal said. The hand thinning favored increased fruit size in Gala and return bloom in Fuji. He said the pruning and thinning programs were made feasible with the development of self-propelled platforms. The company forged ahead and developed harvest-assist platforms by improving the bin filling equipment available in the warehouse to adapt to the orchard in partnership with Van Doren Sales, a regional warehouse equipment company. The orchard platform is sold by Littau Harvester.

Pursuing a legacy

Scott McDougall of McDougall & Sons reviewed operations at the company’s Legacy orchard, started in 2012 when irrigation rights were obtained. Construction of the irrigation system began in 2013. Retention ponds (including a 16-million-gallon main distribution pond), pumping stations, mainlines and roads were planned and established. The first blocks were planted in 2014.

Scott McDougall

In 2016, Legacy was the site of 8,400 harvested bins on third-leaf Gala, Fuji and Ambrosia. The primary system is an angled canopy, with tree spacing of 12 feet by 2 feet, with 1,816 trees per acre. A vertical system that is no longer being planted maintains a tree spacing of 10 feet by 3 feet, with 1,450 trees per acre. Legacy hosts an apple rootstock trial and a cherry rootstock trial planted in 2015.

The Legacy acreage totals 560 plantable acres (425 acres currently in the ground), with 135 open acres. Total McDougall & Sons acreage is now at 3,289.

McDougall said he’s planting blocks that can handle automated harvesting technology. With production costs per acre approaching $60,000 at the Legacy site – in addition to pre-production costs – McDougall isn’t interested in chasing “commodity varieties,” choosing to focus on the emerging club selections.

The operation is concentrating on Ambrosia, which the company holds the U.S. rights to market, the managed variety Envy, and Cosmic Crisp, the Washington State University variety being released to the state’s growers this spring for planting. Legacy will be the site for 16 acres of Cosmic Crisp in 2017.

“The last 15 years have ben transformative,” for the five-generation business, McDougall said. “Acreage has been increasing steadily. Premium- value varieties have been actively sought out and planted. An H-2A guest-worker program was started for just harvest and is now used for pruning and training, fruit thinning, planting and trellis construction.”

The company is also looking at earlier cherry varieties, planning an additional 300-400 acres in coming years, McDougall said.

A new packing facility and warehouse for apples and cherries has been completed, and a dedicated organic
line has been established to pack the increasing organic volume, he said.

Editor’s note: Coverage of the second day of orchard tours will be in the May issue of FGN.

— Gary Pullano, associate editor





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