Dec 30, 2014
Hard cider: New industry faces shortage of trees, labor

Despite being a very old practice, the making of hard cider is virtually a new industry in the United States. The recent growth in sales has been “staggering,” and the U.S. apple industry as a whole is just starting to consider how to adjust to this “fashionable” new trend.

That was the message speakers gave during an educational session covering hard cider, held as part of the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December.

Wanda Heuser Gale, a horticultural adviser with Summit Tree Sales in Lawrence, Michigan, said hard cider currently makes up about 1 percent of wine sales in the United States. For a budding industry, that’s an impressive number.

Large commercial brewers like Anheuser-Busch are selling most of the hard cider right now, she said, but where they get their apples is a bit of a question mark. There seems to be a variety of sources: Concentrate, pollinator crabs, stripping antique varieties from abandoned orchards and grabbing varieties that weren’t destined for the hard-cider market (like No. 2s or juice apples).

Probably the most sustainable method for sourcing apples, however, is for hard-cider producers to contract with tree suppliers, Gale said.

That’s easier said than done, however. According to Gale and Bill Pitts, manager of Wafler Nurser in Wolcott, New York, there are two major hurdles the industry needs to overcome: A shortage of trees and a lack of knowledge about hard-cider varieties.

For anyone starting a cidery, Pitts said the availability of trees is going to be the main limitation.

Demand for apple trees has been soaring lately. The nursery industry is in the midst of the “biggest planting cycle we have ever seen,” and nurseries have been planting “full tilt” to meet demand. Growers making sizable orders now won’t get their trees until about 2018, Gale said.

A downturn in the cycle is inevitable, but Gale doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. In the meantime, nurseries are so busy trying to keep up with fresh-variety orders that they have no economic incentive to focus on the more obscure cider varieties.

“You’re not going to mess with growing something you don’t need to grow,” she told growers in the audience. “Neither are they.”

Despite this, a handful of nurseries are starting to focus on cider varieties. There are difficulties to overcome, however. For one thing, the dozens of varieties used to make hard cider are “all old and nobody really knows anything about any of them,” Gale said.

What is known is that many cider varieties tend to grow like “wild things,” and budwood sources can be “full of viruses.”

“Nurseries do not like viruses,” Gale said. “They’re dangerous, and they could put a lot of people out of business.”

If a nursery can manage to find budwood for hard-cider varieties, it often has poor or “funny” growing characteristics, Pitts said. The vigor is often too low or too high.

“If you’re used to growing apple trees, they grow quite a bit differently,” he said.

And because cider varieties aren’t grown in large quantities, many of their quirks haven’t been discovered yet, he said.

Another thing that makes Pitts nervous is the compatibility of cider varieties with new Geneva rootstocks. Some combinations can be “very brittle.” He advises being very careful with Geneva rootstocks until the best combinations are discovered.

Proper identification is another challenge. Because hard-cider varieties are so obscure, it can be hard to verify that the apple is the variety it claims to be, Gale and Pitts said.

Then there’s the tremendous diversity of cider apples out there. Nurseries don’t have the capacity to work with 40 or so varieties, and the industry will have to whittle that number down to no more than a dozen of the most popular, Gale and Pitts said.

USDA is poised to give a research grant for the study of hard-cider varieties, production, marketing – “the whole nine yards,” Gale said. Hopefully the grant will lead to more information for the industry, but it will take years for the research to come to fruition.

In the meantime, if you own a cidery or are thinking of starting one, what can you do?

First, research which varieties you want and get in touch with nurseries that supply them. If you want a reliable source of trees, order on contract (and be willing to pay a deposit). Keep in mind it will be three or four years before you get your trees, Gale said.

Mechanical harvest?

Another challenge for the hard-cider industry is one felt by the entire apple industry: A shortage of labor.

To solve this problem, researchers at Washington State University (WSU) are studying mechanical harvest of cider apples. They’ve found that mechanical harvest can provide labor and cost savings without affecting cider quality, according to WSU.

The study is one of several focused on cider apple production in Washington state, where the amount of cider produced tripled between 2007 and 2012, according to WSU.

Cider apples take longer to harvest than fresh because they’re smaller. And according to WSU, harvest labor can account for nearly half an orchard’s annual costs – if there are enough workers to begin with.

“We simply don’t have a dedicated agricultural labor market in western Washington,” said horticulturist Carol Miles, lead author of the WSU study. “High quality and affordable labor to hand harvest cider apples is difficult to come by and costly.”

Miles leads a cider-apple research program at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mt. Vernon.

Though mechanical harvest is a logical solution to labor shortages, such a machine doesn’t exist for apples. Mechanical harvest also is likely to damage the fruit, according to WSU.

To address the first challenge, Miles and her team used a mechanical raspberry harvester to pick a cider apple called Brown Snout. The machine passes over fruit trees that are no higher than 6 feet, knocking apples from trees and carrying them onto a conveyer belt for collection by workers in tote bins, according to WSU.

Researchers assessed the level of damage to the trees and tested the fruit to see what impact bruising had on fruit and juice quality. The two-year study showed that machine harvesting required as little as a quarter of the labor compared to hand harvesting, resulting in an average savings of $324 per acre, according to WSU.

Bruising did occur, but it didn’t affect the quality of fruit or juice, according to WSU.

Matt Milkovich

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