Aug 12, 2015
Jon Clements: IFTA Study Tour 2015 recap

Along with approximately 140 other lucky IFTA members, I had the good fortune to attend the IFTA Study Tour to Washington July 15-17, 2015 which visited orchards in the Columbia Basin area of southern Washington state, USA. Take-home messages for me were several:

  • Water, although perceived by us here in the East to be a problem out there in the west, is not really a problem for most apple growers in Washington. A massive federal reclamation project which dams the Columbia River (although salmon be-damned!) and provides a series of canals and reservoirs means there is plenty of water in the Columbia Basin. Much overhead irrigation of corn, wheat, and other field crops was seen. Trickle, overhead, and cooling water was used in orchards. I believe there was some water restriction on orchards farthest removed from the water source, but that did not seem to be a big deal. That remains to be seen with time I suppose. It should be noted there is virtually no snowpack in the U.S. mountains out there, and the spigot originates in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, so there was some talk about Canada perhaps trying to gain some advantage for supplying all this water to the U.S. I suspect California would like to tap into some of that water too?
  • Honeycrisp, like water, is perceived by us East coast apple growers to be a problem in Washington too. “Poor quality, poor flavor, shouldn’t be growing them out there!”Maybe, but what I saw looked pretty darn good — fruits on the trees looked good, trees looked healthy, and growers are serious about producing quality Honeycrisp and lots of them. Sure, I saw some sunburn, but foliage was dark green and healthy and the fruits were clean and very Honeycrisp-like. You would not have known it wasn’t a tree in the east or mid-west (or Nova Scotia even). And I repeat, the growers we visited were very serious about producing top-quality Honeycrisp fruit. I was impressed and won’t likely ‘diss,’ and in fact probably defend, their ability to grow good Honeycrisp out there. Did I mention overhead cooling is a necessity with this fruit though.
  • Apple yields, all the talk was 100, 22 bushel bins per acre being the new standard (or at least the achievable goal). 2,200 bushels per acre! Wasn’t it all that long ago that 1,200 to 1,500 bushels per acre was considered pretty magical? (Still pretty magical here on the East coast.) To get this yield, angled V-canopies were prevalent. (Maximum light interception = maximum yield.) A side-effect of using V-canopy support systems, however, was the need to re-assess support system construction methods because 2,000 bushels per acre = 40 tons of fruit per acre to hold up. It was noted some support systems were failing under this fruit load, hence the need to analyze and re-construct our notions about what an adequate support system should look like. Note that we did see some vertical canopies, super-spindle and tall-spindle, although they did not call it tall-spindle out there, what did they call it, I can’t remember? These vertical canopies do lend themselves to mechanization better, however, than the angled canopies. Despite the allure of high yields, after looking at lots of angled canopy systems (lots, trust me!), I don’t feel the need to bring that system back east. Unless I want to grow 2,000 bushels per acre, hmmm….
  • Labor, some discussion, most notable, when cherry harvest starts, there is little labor left to do apple orchard work like hand thinning. Hand thinning was ongoing while we were visiting, some orchards had not been hand thinned. This is late. Offshore H2A labor seems to be an increasing option to supplement the more traditional local and seasonal Hispanic labor.
  • The apple crop will be big again out there this year, perhaps not as big as last year’s record-breaker, but still big. There did not seem to be too much concern about this, especially if growing managed varieties and/or Honeycrisp. The legacy varieties are in trouble, although Washington State University Extension’s Karen Lewis thinks we still need a “value”apple at 99 cents per pound that is more affordable than the club varieties at $4 per pound which are out of the reach of a lot of people. So, stay tuned to see if over-production truly becomes a problem or will we as an industry figure that out?

To see more from Jon’s trip, visit his blog.

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