Sep 30, 2009
Larry’s World: IFTA President Touts Nova Scotia Industry

Standing in his mountaintop orchard at the highest point of the Annapolis Valley, Larry Lutz looks like king of the world.

But it’s not his 55-acre family orchard that sets him near the pinnacle of the fruit industry. It’s the key roles he plays in the lives of other fruit growers, in Nova Scotia and beyond.

That day, Lutz is playing the role of president of the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA), hosting two busloads of its members at they tour the Annapolis Valley the first week of August, during its annual summer tour.

But when he’s not in that role, Larry Lutz is vice president of agricultural services for Scotian Gold Cooperative in Coldbrook, Nova Scotia. That organization, which has 30 orchards as voting members and another 25 that uses its services, produces and markets more than a million bushels of apples a year, more than half of the entire output of Nova Scotia.

“We’re very vertically integrated,” Larry said.

It’s a very democratic organization, where 30 to 40 people show up at 7 a.m. every Thursday morning to discuss the status of the fruit crop, what to spray, when to spray, even more fundamental questions like what varieties they should plant. Lutz chairs at least one grower meeting weekly from April until October.

Lutz has been employed by Scotian Gold since 1991. He is a Certified Crop Advisor, a Certified Nutrient Management Planner and a Professional Agrologist.

He provides technical advice to growers: Fertilizer recommendations, pesticide choice and application, varieties and planting systems. The co-op provides support services like soil tests and leaf tissue analysis, and sells products like fertilizers and pesticides. It works with nurseries to source and sell fruit trees and specialized equipment and coordinates the acquisition of off-shore labor through an H-2A-like program that brings in workers from Jamaica. It helps growers arrange custom services like soil fumigation before planting.

Growers don’t have on-farm storage. The co-op stores all the fruit, with a capacity of 435,000 bushels of controlled atmosphere storage and 230,000 bushels of cold storage.

The co-op stores, packs and markets through a 38-acre central site, and Scotian Gold is recognized as a leader and innovator in superior fruit production.

“We’re a pretty tight-knit bunch,” Lutz said, and added, laughing, “they do pretty much what Larry says.”

He can say that. Besides being a well-informed advisor to members, he’s a friend, a member of the grower community, and he’s a co-op member, too. His farm consists of about 55 acres of higher density apples and peaches, producing about 1,000 bins of apples a year, mostly from trees on M-26 and M-7 rootstock. He also grows 3,000-5,000 nursery trees a year. He and his wife, Janice, have four children, teenagers and young adults.

Shaping the industry

Lutz and Scotian Gold have been very instrumental in reshaping Nova Scotia’s apple industry in recent years. The Nova Scotia industry is very old, apples coming from France in the early 1600s to one of the first places settled in North America. While much of Canada is thought of by Americans as “north,” in fact it’s pretty much east, on the 45th parallel with the fruit sites in New York, Washington, Michigan and southern Europe.

In the mid-1990s, Nova Scotia growers latched on to the new variety Honeycrisp. As in their way of doing things, Scotian Gold growers first saw the trees during an IFTA tour and decided to buy 1,000 trees and split them up among a half-dozen growers, according to grower Peter Sanford, whose farm was visited on the tour. They found Honeycrisp grows better in Nova Scotia than almost anywhere.

Not only did Scotian Gold jump on the variety with a marketing effort, scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada did too. They continue to do research on Honeycrisp to improve annual bearing, using Sanford’s Ravenswood Farm as a research site.

Doug Nichols, with the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association, talked the collaborative research to improve Honeycrisp do they can store it longer and get uniform quality. Growers there have much fewer problems with harvest-time drop (they don’t use ReTain), have less than 1 percent incidence of bitter pit, and have developed a pre-storage warming protocol that results in less than 2 pecent nternal breakdown.

That working-together model is continuing. Scotian Gold growers have joined in with Next Big Thing (NBT), the Lake City, Minn., company that controls the cultivar MN 1914 that it will market as SweeTango apples. As a sister to Honeycrisp, Nova Scotia growers decided to see if it, too, was well adapted to the cool, misty climate next to the Bay of Fundy.

“We were offered production units in MN 1914,” Lutz said. “So a bunch of growers sat down together and decided we should be part of this. We discussed who wanted to grow what and settled on a quantity. NBT signed a contract with Scotian Gold and we signed contracts with individual growers. We have a couple similar deals in the works.”

Scotian Gold growers are also taking a keen interest in Ambrosia and have extensive plantings of this variety, which originated as a chance seedling on the farm of Wilfrid and Sally Mennell in Cawston, British Columbia. They were there on the tour, looking at plantings of the variety they nurtured and developed.

“Ambrosia is not a club variety in Canada,” Lutz said, but it is like a club variety outside of the country.

As with other things, Scotian Gold arranges to get trees for its growers, whatever varieties they choose to plant. And those choice fit within the Scotian Gold marketing plan, since few growers have other marketing options. There are only a million people in Nova Scotia, so u-pick operations and direct markets are few and far between.

A place for Northern Spies

The Nova Scotian apple industry has a support system that helps its growers respond to emerging opportunities. In recent years, this Maritime province—as well as other provinces in Canada—have offered growers incentives to remove older fruit plantings and plant new varieties in higher density systems. That is bringing in Honeycrisp, Ambrosia and other new varieties.

About a decade ago, there was a different incentive program designed to increase plantings of the old variety Northern Spy. There is still a good market for that apple in the Annapolis Valley.

“Few growers are putting in new plantings of Northern Spy, and some are grafting over to newer varieties, but overall the market is stable,” said Waterville grower Lloyd Dyck. “Northern Spy still take a long time to reach full production. Trees that are 12 years old look other varieties that are five or six. Still, they provide a good late-season chunk of change.”

Dyck also grows some Gravenstein, an old German variety.

“It’s sweet/tart, juicy, early and big and red,” he said. “It has a good following here in the mid-Atlantic.”

Because it blooms early, Dyck uses a wind machine for frost protection ¬ – something most Nova Scotia growers rarely use.

While Scotian Gold does not market Northern Spies, it acts as a collecting agent, providing storage for growers as the apples make their way to the two large pie companies that turn out some 100,000 frozen apple pies per day, selling under many labels.

The two pie companies were both started by the Sarsfield family. Leonard Sarsfield started the first company in the 1970s and sold it to Weston Foods in 1991. Then 10 years later, Leonard and his son Jeff started a new pie company, called Apple Valley, where Jeff is now the president.

Blake Sarsfield, a cousin, was one of the growers visited on the tour. He has no direct connection to the pie company, but does grow some Northern Spies for it. Some of his apples go directly to Apple Valley, but Scotian Gold brings together a lot of Spies for both pie plants.

After the Sarfields got into apple pie, the business went so well they quit growing in the 1980s. But after selling the factory, they bought a new farm and returned to growing apples.

“I fell in love with the growing side in 1992,” Blake said. “I started working closely with Larry Lutz and Scotian Gold.”

He tries new things, including the Darwin string thinner to thin apples this year.

“We try to do what Larry tells us to do,” he said.

The misty climate

Lutz’s farm is located at the center of the highest point in the Annapolis Valley. Two rivers start there and run in opposite directions up and down the valley, both dumping into the Bay of Fundy, the place famous for the highest tides in the world.

The climate, protected from low temperatures in the winter and cool and moist in the summer, is a great place for diseases that prey on apples.

“Spraying for scab this year, we started on a five-day schedule, extended it to seven days and are at 14 days now,” Lutz said. “Luckily, we only get a generation and a half of codling moth. But this is an old apple region. There are wild trees all over, spread by deer. No one here uses mating disruption, and no one tries to grow apples organically.”

Ravens are another unique pest problem in Nova Scotia. It’s a black bird that is larger than a crow and much less wary of people.

“They strip the bark from young trees, apparently just for the sport of it,” according to Jonathan Fuller, one of the growers visited on the tour.

Some local growers use “interesting” methods of control, including hanging a dead raven on a pole from a visible spot in the orchard. It reportedly works as a deterrent, but those on the tour never actually saw it demonstrated

The best growers

When IFTA members take their orchard tours, it’s mostly about orchard design – what varieties on what rootstocks and what’s the spacing. The travelers, many from areas where good orchard land is scarce and prices of $10,000 and even $100,000 an acre have to paid for entry, Nova Scotia land with fruit potential can be had for $2,000 to $3,000 an acre.

While it costs money to develop an orchard on any spacing, Nova Scotia growers use decidedly wider alleys and more space between trees. Across the Annapolis Valley and the 80-plus growers who make up the industry, yields average only about 400 bushels per acre ¬– largely because of lower tree densities.

John Eisses, owner of Eisses Farms in Centreville, doesn’t fit in with the average. He is said to get the highest yields of any grower in the Valley. He keeps careful records and constantly measures orchard response to the many things he tries. Yields approach 2,000 bushels per acre, five times the Annapolis Valley average.

Eisses is a familiar figure on IFTA tours, seeking out new things, and walking the orchard one could see the evolution that had taken place over the years as new varieties, new rootstocks and new planting systems were introduced. He is one of the largest Honeycrisp growers in Canada, and he has extensive new plantings of Ambrosia, Novaspy and Jubilee Fuji.

He has trees that are freestanding, trees on single stakes, trees on V-trellis, and trees with wire and post support and conduit on each tree.

The secrets to top yields on the Eisses farm, in Lutz’s assessment, are these:

•A tremendous natural site. He has some of the deepest soils in the Valley, where thin, stony soil is the rule.

•He prepares the sites well.

•“He listens to everything you say and then does it in exactly the right way,” Lutz said. “He doesn’t cut corners.”

•“He thinks money spent on travel is money well-spent,” Larry said. “He finds new things and applies them. He was the first grower in Canada with large plantings of Honeycrisp and Ambrosia.”

•He buys the best trees, the ones of highest quality.

•He uses irrigation on young trees, something that is rarely used in Nova Scotia.

•He uses training systems that require the least amount of work possible. He has lots of family help and spreads it over lots of acres of apples. John and his wife Trudy farm with four sons and daughters and their families.

While the Eisses orchard was awe-inspiring, another orchard stood out as well ¬– the one called Canard Orchards started by Peter VanOostrum and, since 2000, owned and managed by his son Gerry and wife Shonna. According to Lutz, the VanOostrums have the highest packout percentage of all the growers in the Scotian Gold co-op.

That’s important because there’s no alternative processing market for peeler apples. Apples either make the extra fancy fresh market grade or they go for juice, Lutz said.

The keys to quality on the Van Oosten farm, according to Lutz, are these:

Acreage is a lot smaller. Every tree in the orchard is an individual. Thinning and pruning is detailed, with limbs correctly placed and apples thinned by hand to space.

“Gerry is a stickler for detail,” Lutz said.

Because of the low-vigor soils, most Nova Scotia growers choose the more vigorous M-26 rootstock, but Gerry plants almost exclusively on M-9. He’s using slender spindle and tall spindle systems on trellis, growing McIntosh, Gala, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Northern Spy and Cortland.

Like John Eisses, Peter VanOostrum is an IFTA traveler who has found and applied ideas from around the world. Their children are carrying on in their sizable wake.

Soil preparation

“Growers spend a lot more time on soil preparation now,” Lutz said.

The soil is red in color and looks like clay, but it’s not slippery. It’s low in organic matter and stony. It is not very fertile.

To get trees off to a good start, growers fumigate all replant sites, use deep tillage and use animal manure, compost and mulch to increase organic matter.

Even with these measures, trees go in on higher vigor rootstocks and growers strip fruit from young trees to channel growth to tree structure in the early years.

The marketing system

Since Nova Scotia growers have a local customer base of only a million people, over the years it has depended on export markets—west into the Canadian heartland and the United States, east across the ocean to Europe, especially the United Kingdom.

David Cudmore, the chief operating officer of Scotian Gold, said that historically Nova Scotia had to export its apples, and today nearly three-quarters of its Honeycrisp goes to U.S. markets and a quarter of its McIntosh goes to the United Kingdom.

The Scotian Gold growers “discovery” of Honeycrisp in 1996 was “quite a risk for the co-op, not like anything we’d seen before,” Cudmore said.

But it turned into opportunity. Before 1996, growers weren’t making money. But Honeycrisp showed they could make money with better varieties and better production systems, so they reinvested in orchard systems and doubled the volume sold – and their co-op helped pave the way.

“There are a tremendous amount of new plantings,” Cudmore said.

In 2008, Scotian Gold invested in a sorting system that is capable of putting 69,000 bins of pre-sorted apples into storage. The six-lane sorter separates out apples with defects and divides the rest by size and color into 30 water flumes. The computer on the sorter knows the exact weight of apples in each flume, and fills bins accordingly.

With a combination of cold and CA storage, the co-op packed apples for sale every month this last year except July.

Cudmore said that Scotian Gold is attempting to work with marketers in other areas, rather than invade their markets and compete for share. One such effort is the decision to produce the club variety MN 1914, the marketing of which will be done under the name SweeTango and controlled by the cooperative Next Big Thing in Minnesota.

Dennis Courtier, with Peppin Heights Orchards and Next Big Thing, was on the tour and said he wants to make sure SweeTango is not destroyed by overplanting and planting in areas unsuited for it – as he fears will happen Honeycrisp. Peppin Heights was an early grower and marketer of Honeycrisp.

As it turns out, Nova Scotia is able to grow high quality apples of both Honeycrisp and SweeTango.

In future issues, Fruit Growers News will have feature articles on more of the 13 orchardists who opened their farms to the visitors from IFTA. Look for them.

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