Mar 4, 2015
More than one way to grow apples in South Tyrol

With about 8,000 people growing apples in Italy’s South Tyrol province, it’s hard to pinpoint a “typical” grower. But visiting the farms of Stefan Klotzner and Kurt Komiss – as the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) did in November – might give you an idea what it’s like to grow apples in one of Europe’s premier fruit regions.

The first thing you might notice – fairly typical for the region – is a love of machinery: tractors, sprayers, mulchers, platforms, etc. You also might notice that both growers are members of one or more of South Tyrol’s famed cooperatives, which handle duties like storage and packing for the vast majority of the province’s apple producers.

If you look closer, you’ll see more similarities, but also significant differences.

Stefan Klotzner

Far up on a hillside, where two valleys meet, is the farm of Stefan Klotzner.

Based in the village of Schenna, the Klotzner farm has been owned by the same family since 1615. The farm house, where the family still lives, was built in 1766. It’s now a protected historic building, Klotzner said.

Growing apples became a tradition after World War I, when Klotzner’s grandfather, returning from the war, became the first orchardist in Schenna. Klotzner and his son are the latest members of the family to run the farm.

The farm currently encompasses about 25 acres, mostly contiguous. At 700 meters above sea level, with light soils and strong light from the evening sun, it’s an ideal place to grow Golden Delicious (about two-thirds of his crop). Klotzner also grows Red Delicious, Kanzi, Braeburn, Fuji, Gala and – a recent top performer – Envy.

During the IFTA visit, Cornell University horticulturist Terence Robinson listed some of Klotzner’s yields: 50 to 70 tons per hectare of Red Delicious; 70 to 80 tons of Golden Delicious; and 80 to 90 tons of Braeburn (with a 90 percent pack-out).

Klotzner, who’s recorded weather data every day for the last 30 years, said average annual rainfall in his area is about 700 millimeters. Rain typically falls in spring and summer, and winter is usually dry (if there’s snow, it only lasts a few weeks). 2014 was exceptionally wet, however, with more than 200 millimeters coming down in November.

He said the average temperature in the region is 11.5˚ C (about 52˚ F), with winter temperatures rarely going below minus 6˚ C (about 21˚ F).

Spring frosts wiped out two-thirds of Klotzner’s crop in 2012, but that was an exceptional year. In terms of climate, hail typically does the most damage. Hail nets cover about two-thirds of his apples these days. He started putting them up in the 1990s, to save on insurance costs. His insurance premium for apples under netting is 150 euros per hectare; outside the netting, the cost is 400 euros per hectare. He only pays a quarter of the premium cost, however. The rest is subsidized by the European Union and provincial government.

Apple proliferation phytoplasma is a major problem. One of Klotzner’s neighbors recently lost 30 percent of his trees to the virus, he said.

Local growers are very diligent about thinning, both hand and chemical. Klotzner and his crew spent up to 400 hours per hectare thinning by hand last year. They aim for about 120 apples per tree and 200 grams per fruit. The farm yields about 700 tons per year, he said.

For thinning and picking, they hire seasonal workers from Poland and the Czech Republic (up to a dozen, who stay with the family). They use a mechanical platform during harvest, and spend about 250 labor hours per hectare, he said.

Irrigation goes back a long way in his region, with a very complicated system of water rights. The water comes from a channel built in the 1600s. Klotzner gets his every Tuesday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. one week, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next. He switched to drip irrigation years ago, and his system is now completely automated, he said.

Kurt Komiss

South of Klotzner, near the provincial capital of Bolzano, is the farm of Kurt Komiss. Located on the valley floor, the Komiss farm encompasses about 57 acres, but it’s split into eight blocks – the furthest block being 8 kilometers from the main farm. Komiss owns half the land and rents the other half. Like Klotzner, he runs the family farm with his son.

Komiss’ main variety is Gala (about a quarter of his crop), but he also grows Kanzi, Fuji, Braeburn, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Jazz, Winesap, Golden Elstar and Pink Lady. Since his farm is 250 meters above sea level, he can’t grow Golden Delicious of the same quality as growers at higher elevations. Varieties like Kanzi and Jazz perform well in his area, though they require intensive management, he said.

Komiss’ harvest period is fairly long – from early August to late November or so – but there are no peaks. Like Klotzner, he hires seasonal workers from Poland and the Czech Republic.

The farm yields about 1,600 tons of apples per year. On average, Komiss makes 35 to 40 euro cents per kilogram. High-end varieties like Jazz and Pink Lady can fetch him up to 80 euro cents per kilogram, he said.

Hail is less of a problem for Komiss, although hail nets cover 90 percent of his fruit. The nets also protect from sunburn and wind. Sprinklers protect his trees from spring frosts, he said.

Apple proliferation isn’t a problem in his area, but scab has become an issue. Mediterranean fruit fly also is a concern, he said.

Komiss has other apple-related endeavors. He’s a nurseryman. His trees, all on M.9 rootstock, are grown further south, near Verona. He also produces dried apple slices (about 50 tons a year).

Cooperative rules require Komiss to be certified for food safety and sustainability through GLOBALG.A.P. The requirements were more or less common practice before they became mandatory, he said, so they weren’t difficult to fulfill.

Matt Milkovich

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