Sep 3, 2019Ontario growers find niche in climate, market advantages
Ontario’s tree fruit growers know how to take advantage of being located next to one of the best marketplaces in North America.
Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fourth-largest city in North America. It is Canada’s economic and trading hub.
“Ontario’s tree fruit production is spread out across southern Ontario from east to west, and north to south,” said Chris Hedges, a grower and owner of Hedges Apples. “We are fortunate in Ontario that our growing regions are surrounded by the Great Lakes, providing us with an ideal climate for fruit production.”
Hedges is treasurer of the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA), which in July hosted its Summer Study Tour in the Norfolk and Georgian Bay areas, two of the five main tree-fruit growing regions.
Hedges is a first-generation grower with a banking background. In addition to owning Ontario Orchard Supply, he oversees an expanding 250-acre apple orchard, with 75 acres newly planted and not in full production. The operation also has a new 10,000-bin controlled atmosphere storage facility.
Starting on older rental orchard blocks in the late 1990s, Hedges planted Gala, Honeycrisp and through a downturn continued to plant. Today, the acreage consists primarily of Gala, Honeycrisp and Ambrosia, as well as a few McIntosh, Red Delicious, Fuji and Empire.
Hedges’ 3-by-11-foot planting of Honeycrisp on G.41 planted on tall spindle in 2015 is managed without ethylene bisdithiocarbamates (EBDCs), a class of chemicals to which mancozeb belongs. He uses a 1% Cueva (Certis USA) treatment and alternates a fire blight or powdery mildew spray with this planting.
“I don’t know if I’d do Honeycrisp on G.41 again,” he said. “I’m a B.9 guy. I think B.9 has saved me more than once.”
Controlling vigor that disrupts branch orientation and training has been a big concern.
“These things have grown like crazy since the day they were planted,” he said. “I got so concerned about the top wire, I forgot about the bottom.”
His new plantings are primarily B.9 with some G-series roots thrown in for Gala, Honeycrisp and Ambrosia. Hedges uses bamboo for tree training, building the anchors twice, not training the tree.
In Georgian Bay’s Meaford area, IFTA tour attendees were transported into the future of local fruit production. Sandy Creek Orchards is an orchard development funded by Italian investors. The fledgling operation mimicked similar orchard systems found in western South Tyrol, Italy, including the use of concrete posts and hail nets.
When Italian investors were looking for a good site for a state-of-the-art apple orchard, Ian Furlong, a row-crop grower who manages agriculture investments, worked with the investors to identify a site for a modern apple orchard.
“I always knew this farm would be a better value as another crop,” said Furlong, who serves as the operations manager, working with farm manager and Italian import Stefano Paoli.
Furlong said Paoli “has an aggressive approach to trees. He wants to set maximum growth this year and crop next year.”
“This is coming from a European management system,” Furlong said. “When I say we need to take it slow; I mean we need to see what can be done here.”
Furlong said Paoli intends to plant 2,700 trees per acre in a pedestrian orchard where trees would be about 7 feet tall.
“I’d rather start them at the top and slow them down than to start slow and see what they can do,” Furlong said.
The land had previously been an orchard for 50 years before being converted to cash crop in recent years. Fifteen acres of new high-density tree plantings – 10 feet by 26- inch spacing – began in 2018.
The investment is substantial, Furlong said.
“You are absolutely right if you think it’s not cheap to float cement posts over on a boat,” said Furlong, who manages Sandy Creek Orchards for Italian investors.
But the owners wanted to grow in a familiar system.
Furlong said the new plantings cover about 35 acres, with the intent to expand over the next 10 years to 350 acres.
Last year, 15 acres of Honeycrisp on M.9 were planted. This year, 20 acres of Honeycrisp were planted on M.9 and B.9.
The cement poles, shade cloth and other materials required to function like an Italian tree fruit operation were shipped from Italy by FruitTop. Only the trees were sourced from North America, Furlong said.
“Every last bolt, nut, and zip tie,” Furlong said. It likely cost 30% to 40% more to import all the materials. He estimated the costs per acre – not including the land or tree expenses – at $30,000 in Canadian currency.
Furlong saw orchards in South Tyrol on their third or fourth replant using 60-year-old cement posts.
“It was a no-brainer to justify the added expense. You have to milk that tree for 20 years to make up that expense,” Furlong said.
Water, supplied by a pond, and frost protection are a large part of the orchard system, where overhead cooling and a drip line are utilized. The FruitTop package also includes black hail netting – pre-engineered for a static load.
The hail nets are reinforced by being weighed down using clip releases and the hail falls through to avoid damage.
He said black hail netting was chosen because it can reduce red coloring by about 25%.
Furlong was glad to have started off on a smaller scale.
“My 15-acre experience of trees last year was a learning experience,” he said.
– Gary Pullano, Managing Editor
Above, Ontario, Canada grower Chris Hedges operates an expanding 250-acre orchard as part of an Ontario apple industry that produces an average of 277 million pounds per year. Photos: Gary Pullano