Sep 15, 2017
Michigan IFTA tour shows production trends

A focus on tree fruit excellence, innovation and success was brought to life in July during the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) 2017 Michigan Study Tour, based out of Grand Rapids.

The first day of the tour kicked off at Wittenbach Orchards, founded when Fredrick Wittenbach moved to Michigan from Switzerland in 1899.

The stop kicked off a look at orchard operations in the Belding and south Fruit Ridge areas.

Ed Wittenbach joined the farm and took over in 1962, and has been a fixture in the Michigan tree fruit industry ever since. His son, Mike, manages the operation today, farming more than 750 acres as Wittenbach Orchards. Mike’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, joined the farm after graduating from Michigan State University (MSU) in 2016.

Wittenbach Orchards has over 200 acres of apples. Orchard replacement is a priority for the operation. Five percent of the orchard is replaced each year, and the Wittenbachs are slowly chipping away at old standard varieties.

Mike Wittenbach of Wittenbach Orchards in Belding Michigan

Tall spindle is Mike’s preferred planting system. Other orchard establishment irrigation priorities for Wittenbach Orchards include irrigation and frost protection. Wittenbach Orchards plants solid blocks interspersed with Mt. Blanc, Mt. Everest and Indian Summer crabapple varieties. The Wittenbachs prefer blocks of a single apple cultivar for management and economic reasons.

Managed varieties, including SweetTango, were showcased by Mike during the IFTA tour. Elizabeth talked about fertigation and precision cropload management.

Tom Rasch & Son Orchards is entering its third generation. Tom Rasch Jr. joined Tom Sr. and has been the primary manager/owner since the 1980s. At nearly 1,000 feet above sea level, the orchards have weathered many frosts with the help of numerous frost protection devices. Overhead irrigation is applied to the mostly sandy loam soil. Jonathan and Red Delicious are being phased out for more productive varieties such as SweetTango and Gala.

Root pruning and scoring are two of the most extreme yet essential tools the farm has embraced over the decades to keep vigorous and biennial varieties in check. Some years, half of the farm has been root pruned. Kyle, Devin and Eric, the next generation at Tom Rasch & Son Orchards, continue to tweak and experiment with the systems in place and have influenced many big limbs to be removed. Kyle Rasch displayed the use of foil as a groundcover to enhance sun accessibility in the tree canopy.

Chris Kropf of Hart Fruit Farm in Greenville, Michigan.

Chris, a fourth-generation apple grower, and Kim Kropf operate Hart Fruit Farm. Chris talked about early tree establishment, tree training, trellis use and growing Honeycrisp on B-9 rootstock.

Patrick Goodfellow Orchards works with local grower Ryan Kober to maintain an 80,000-tree on-farm nursery. Goodfellow Orchards, now in its fifth generation, is run by Patrick and his wife Laura. They have 200 acres of apples in two counties, Ottawa and Kent. Patrick also is involved in Elite Apple Co. packing facility that was built in 2013.

Past IFTA President Phil Schwallier, his wife, Judy, and their extended family run a commercial apple orchard and farm market (Schwallier’s Country Basket) on the Fruit Ridge near Sparta. They farm 100 acres of apples, raspberries and pumpkins. Phil is a fifth-generation grower. He joined MSU Extension in 1978.

Phil showed guests his plant growth regulator trials, as well as a netting trial that was upstaged in 2017 by early frost damage.

Cherry trials displayed

The second day of the tour focused on the northern area of what is typically called “Peach Ridge,” or the Fruit Ridge.

Don Armock, Charlie Steffens and Justin Finkler hosted the group at Riveridge Land Company’s Grant location.

The operation with locations in Grant and Sparta has a total of 520 acres of apples in production, 22 acres of newly-planted apples and 12 acres of sweet cherries.

The Riveridge family of companies is comprised of several entities, including Riveridge Produce Marketing, Riveridge Packing and Riveridge Land Companies 1 and 2.

Greg Lang, professor of horticulture at MSU, is working with Riveridge to develop sweet cherry fruiting wall orchards. Planted in 2016-17, the V-trellis, 14-wire system features 338 trees each of Ebony Pearl/Giesela 5, Burgundy Pearl/Giesela 5 and Radiance Pearl/Giesela 5.

Canopy training systems include Espalier (ESP) – a single leader per side of V with multiple horizontal fruiting laterals; Upright Fruiting Offshoots (UFO) with a single cordon with multiple vertical fruiting leaders; B-Axis (UFO) with dual cordons with multiple vertical fruiting leaders; and Kym Green Bush (KBG-V), with multiple vertical leaders created by repeated heading.

Bill Nyblad, above, of New Leaf Orchards in Kent City, Michigan, was among the growers sharing their production techniques.

Bill Nyblad and family hosted the tour at New Leaf Orchards, comprised of three generations of fruit growers, including Bill, Nick and Gunnar. Together they run 450 acres of fruit consisting of apples, peaches and plums, as well as sweet and tart cherries.

Recently, New Leaf also started growing multiple varieties of hops.

While the orchard’s top apple variety is Gala, the farm raises many different varieties. The Nyblads have been leaders in planting multi-leader apple plantings after Bill toured Italy to view their Bi- axe plantings.

Rasch Family Orchards was a tour stop hosted by Don, Jake and Nick Rasch. They displayed their apricot and peach V-trellis system. Today they have 500 acres of fruit on five main farms.

Jim, Curtis, AJ and Phil Dietrich showcased operations at Leo Dietrich & Sons at its Laketon Farm. The farm has grown to cover 16 varieties of apples and is on the cutting edge of the industry’s demand for new market options. Showcased were the operation’s high density sweet cherries, with pruning and hedging displays along with updates on plant growth regulator trials conducted in partnership with MSU’s Schwallier.


VIEW PHOTOS: IFTA Summer Tour displays how to achieve excellence



Trials tell the tale

The final day of the tour made stops at MSU’s Clarksville research facility as well as George Sundin’s plots in East Lansing.

At Clarksville, Lang led a tour of a project where sweet cherries are being grown in three high tunnels measuring 28 feet by 159 feet. The objective is to provide a more controlled environment for trees with just the right air and soil temperature, light, water, humidity and wind. Lang’s research also includes trials of different cherry tree rootstocks and cherry branch training systems.

Also at the Clarksville stop, Schwallier led a tour of Gala and Honeycrisp apple trees in trials to examine the effects of the herbicide Metamitron when used for apple thinning. Metamitron limits photosynthesis, and the number of fruit produced by creating a carbohydrate deficit. A limited application of the herbicide induced a reduction in photosynthesis for about two weeks.

MSU Associate Professor Matthew Grieshop demonstrated the use of a solid set canopy delivery system at Clarksville. The canopy system consists of a network of small sprayers connected to a mixing and pumping station.

“We’ve put all this together with off- the-shelf parts,” he said.

The system has a variety of applications including distributing nutrients or other agricultural chemicals. Another application could be delaying the bloom of fruit trees by mist cooling.

At a bus stop later in the morning, plant pathology researcher Sundin led a tour of test orchards on the MSU campus in East Lansing where he and his associates test fungicides. Sundin said he and his team create “disease pressure” not only by exposing the trees to the disease, but by choosing varieties with low tolerance for disease and making other choices about the tree’s climate that tip the balance in favor of the disease – all show how well the fungicides work.

The site included a plot with 30 different hard apple cider varieties that were being tested for their resilience to disease, but Sundin’s other areas of study are testing new treatments for fire blight and apple scab.

Most popular apple varieties remain susceptible to blight, Sundin said, so the disease is an ongoing concern.

“We’ll test any (treatment), and hopefully see that it works,” he said. “We’ve got a high susceptibility to blight that we need to deal with.”

The IFTA conference ended with lunch at MSU Horticulture Gardens, where the group was also introduced to a project testing the growth of apple trees in Ellepot containers, in an effort to reduce transplant shock and improve early growth, especially in Honeycrisp.

FGN Assistant Editor Stephen Kloosterman contributed to this report.

Gary Pullano, managing editor

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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