Jul 31, 2014
Northwest Michigan tries hand at apples

Long a hot spot for cherries, northwest Michigan fruit growers are hoping to make inroads into high-density apple production.

The research necessary to identify proper rootstock, irrigation and fertilization requirements in the region continues to take shape as the interest in crop diversification takes hold.

When members of the Michigan Pomesters toured northwest farm sites in early July, as part of RidgeFest 2014, they did so knowing they could likely share as much knowledge about apple production as they could pick up from their northern neighbors, who are still somewhat new to the endeavor. What they found is the cherry pros are poised to make strides in the apple arena.

A stop included a visit to the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center (NWMHRC) north of Traverse City, Michigan, where some of the key research into effective apple harvests in the region was in full view.

“As I see more of our growers transitioning to these higher-density systems, how much water do we need and how much fertilizer do we need to put down on these lighter soils?” said Nikki Rothwell, Michigan State University Extension horticulturalist and the station coordinator. “A lot of times, those data don’t extrapolate really well just because they’ve grown on heavier soil down in the Grand Rapids area, and how we translate those water and fertilizer needs in areas where there are lighter soils.

“I think our growers are very interested in that,” Rothwell said. “A lot of growers haven’t been irrigating our bigger, standard trees. And so how they irrigate and how the technologies change, I think, we’re going to provide them some good data over the years.”

The research center’s NC-140 apple rootstock trial, which it is conducting as part of a multi-state effort, is looking at the performance of 15 rootstocks on Honeycrisp and Fuji. There are 20 cooperators in the apple-growing regions of the United States, of which 13 cooperators received Honeycrisp on 15 rootstocks and seven received Fuji on 14 rootstocks, Rothwell said.

The rootstocks under evaluation include B.10, G.11, G.202, G.214, G.30, G. 5890, G.935, G.969, M.26, EMLA, M.9 337, V.1, V.5 and V.7.

Each cooperator established a block of 140 trees in spring 2014. All of the trees were planted with the graft union 5 inches to 6 inches above the soil line. Any flowers present were removed to prevent fire blight infection. The second and third buds below the leader were removed to eliminate competition for the leader, and all feathers longer than 10 inches were tied down below horizontal.

Irrigation systems were installed shortly after planting, and quarter-pound per calcium nitrate was applied two weeks after planting. A second quarter-pound application was to be made six weeks after planting.

Trunk diameter, number of side branches, yield and tree health will be measured through the 20th leaf.

Rothwell also shared information regarding an irrigation and fertigation trial being staged at NWMHRC. She stressed irrigation and fertigation recommendations are currently extrapolated from the Grand Rapids area, the primary apple-growing region in Michigan. Conditions in northwest Michigan, where soil has been considered too porous for high-density apples, require alternate production strategies.

“To increase grower adoption and reduce risk, water and fertilizer augmentation strategies are needed for growing dwarfing apples in sandy soils that we have here in the northwest,” she said. “This work on irrigation and fertigation strategies will provide the empirical data needed for growers to transition to high-density apple systems.”

Honeycrisp apple trees on Nic 29 (dwarfing rootstock) were planted at NWMHRC in 2013. A total of 870 trees were planted at 3 foot by 12-foot spacings and trained to a tall spindle system. All of the branches longer than 10 inches were tied down below horizontal to initiate fruit bud formation. Bamboo poles were installed in August, and tree leaders are trained and tied to the poles.

Irrigation and fertigation trials were being conducted in this block starting in June, and this planting will also serve as a demonstration plot for pruning and training apples to the tall spindle system. The trees are planted with nine trees per treatment and 10 replications in the block.

Varying applications of irrigation/fertigation strategies are being employed. Tree growth, yield and disease and insect issues will be observed through 2019.

The application of adequate water and fertilizer is primarily achieved through double-trickle irrigation lines that deliver the 0.75 inches of water needed each week, Rothwell said.

Apple expansion

One of the local growers Rothwell is working with is Chris Alpers of Red Path Orchards, which is primarily a tart cherry operation that recently started pursuing high-density apples. Red Path is in an area in Lake Leelanau in which only about 20 percent of the acreage is devoted to apples.

“Chris has been part of our Young Growers program for the past three years, and is really doing a great job and is one of our growers who is taking some new leadership roles in the apple industry,” Rothwell said.

Alpers, who said he had to convince his father that planting high-density apples was the way to go to supplement the farm’s cherry operations and help attract sufficient work crews, is still assessing how to best approach the process and has “learned a lot on the fly.”

He talked about the establishment of a small test block of Gale Galas, in its fourth leaf on Bud 9 rootstock.

Being 200 miles away from the nearest fresh apple packing shed, Alpers said transportation costs hike harvest costs by about $10 a box, or an extra 3 percent to 4 percent when looking at 200 boxes of apples.

“We have extra costs (not incurred by downstate Michigan apple growers) before we even get the apples to the line,” he said.

Alpers said the timing of harvest also can be a detriment, as the area runs seven to 10 days behind other parts of the state.

“A lot of times we miss out, because we’re the last one to the shed with the apples.”

A shorter growing season makes it prohibitive to grow any late-season varieties. Land values in the area also are more expensive, making it costly to purchase new ground to expand. And labor availability is an ongoing concern.

“As the years go forward, it’s challenging to find a good labor supply. We grow a lot of early varieties of apples to try to make it attractive for some people coming north. That’s so after cherry harvest we can keep them in apples.”

He said that while the region’s cold climate is a challenge, being surrounded on three sides by bodies of water provides shelter when storms move in from west to east.

“It’s a good barrier to us for severe weather. At least that’s helped in the past.

“We are able to achieve some really good color, especially on Honeycrisp this far north with our cool nights and our sunlight that many growers further south wish they had,” Alpers said.

His plans going forward include more high-density plantings.

“We have to decide, if we’re going to spend this kind of money to do something like this, are you going to put it in areas where we typically planted apples in the past, where it was lower and they weren’t good cherry sites? I think if we’re going to spend money to do this, it has to be on what we would call one of the better sites.”

Gary Pullano

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