Apr 13, 2019
Paul Wafler’s innovations saluted by the industry

New generations of the Wafler family are making a family tradition of innovation by customizing equipment and even improving the tree structures in their west New York orchards.

Paul Wafler, a second-generation owner of Wafler Farms near Wolcott, New York, was named Grower of the Year by the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) during its annual winter conference and tours in Rochester.

“I don’t think he has ever met a piece of machinery he couldn’t improve,” IFTA President Rod Farrow said. “Every time I visit him, I leave with my head spinning, wondering what I have to do to keep up with this.”

The family

Wafler Farms was started in 1960 by Fritz and Lois Wafler, and the nursery followed in 1962. Lois remains involved with the company as an owner. Paul and his wife Susan handle much of the day-to-day operations.

Fritz Wafler immigrated from Switzerland to Canada when he was 26 years old, moving to New York to establish the fruit farm. He traveled back to Europe 8-10 times after establishing the farm, and would take other growers with him to learn new or advanced growing techniques. He also spent a lot of time reading in the library at the research station, and the knowledge helped him launch the nursery. He became known as a pioneer among growers in upstate New York.

Farrow said Fritz’s green thumb and hospitality have passed to his son, and based on Paul Wafler’s own achievements, he’s moved out of his father’s shadow.

In expressing appreciation for his award, Wafler said his sons Kyle and Jacob would continue the family legacy.

Kyle Wafler of Wafler Farms discusses a picking trailer enabled with surveillance cameras. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman

“I have two young bucks who will one day be up here, hopefully, doing the same thing, because they’re making my head spin, even though Rod thinks I make his head spin,” he said. Kyle helped lead the IFTA tour stop in the orchard, while Jacob is at school and expected to return to the family business afterward.

The farm employs 20 individuals full time in addition to 60-100 part-time employees. Key staff includes nursery manager Bill Pitts and sales assistant Carrie Herzog. The farm business is vertically oriented, controlling postharvest operations as well as the nursery, a sister company. The Waflers are members of Lake Country Cold Storage and an owner of Empire Fruit Growers, who pack their own apples for marketing by NY Apple Sales. Wafler Nursery rears apple and pear trees.

The farm

Custom trailers sit in a block of Ruby McIntosh apple trees at Wafler Farms.

Wafler Farms has 600 acres in apples, with Gala, Honeycrisp, Fuji and Evercrisp being among its top varieties.

Of those 600 acres, 250 are planted in a certain design that is also the farm’s model for future plantings.

The trees are pruned as “tall spindle tip:” trees with a tall structure and a final vertical tip coming off the top invented by Paul Wafler. Rows are alternately spaced 13 feet and 7 feet. In a 2010 planting of Brookfield Galas, trees are planted 3.2 feet apart for a density of 1,400 trees to the acre. Kyle Wafler said for “weaker” densities such as Honeycrisp, the density could be 2,000 trees per acre.

“The main thing with this system is we’re always doing two complete rows at the same time,” said Kyle Wafler during an IFTA tour of such an orchard. Symmetrical rows help the pickers on both sides of the platform pick at an equal rate. “Here, we’re taking the whole tree, same varieties on both sides, same workload.”

The angle of overhang also helps pickers.

“When you’re working on the machines, the tree’s always wanting to give you a hug, because it’s always leaning toward you so you can do all your work from the ground of one side as well as the top,” Kyle Wafler said.

The trees are trained at an angle, so that the top of the tree overhangs the middle of a row by a foot and a half. The 13-foot rows are functionally 10 feet wide because of the overhanging tree structure. The block, planted in 2018, had grown to 11 feet tall, which is higher than a one-to-one ratio, but which Kyle Wafler said works because of the angle of the structure.

The yield goal for most varieties is 1,400 bushels to the acre.

“We want 20 branches on a tree on average, and want only five apples per branch, so that gives us about 100 apples per tree. That’s about 1,400 bushels to the acre,” he said. “So that’s how we quickly quantify when we’re doing our task to make everything really simple.”

The fun

Wafler Farms customizes a lot of its equipment, and several of its different systems were on display during the IFTA tour.

Kyle Wafler and sales assistant Carrie Herzog spoke about equipment used in the field. The farm has a customized sprayer for foliar applications, which sprays the leaves at intersecting angles. Kyle said his father’s design was meant to “paint” the leaves thoroughly, similar to how a body shop would paint a car. Drape Net is used to protect from hail, but Kyle Wafler said two stitched-together nets are deployed over the top of two orchard rows for greater efficiency.

But the star of the show was a video and software system that Paul Wafler demonstrated. Cameras and sensors on each trailer – operated by Raspberry Pi miniature computers – track unloading bins, lunch breaks and other interruptions in the picking process.

Monitors in a common area help crews review video footage of the previous day’s work.

As far as the video goes, the camera views can be pulled up by supervisors. Each camera automatically shows the date, time, block, section, row and linear feet traveled between unload sites.

“We developed this thing mainly for the curiosity of trying to figure out how we’re going to deal with quality and things to do with a big labor force,” Paul Wafler said.

The harvest crew later watches some of the playback on monitors, and Wafler will use the time to critique their performance and encourage them.

Although he said supervisors can see employees who don’t hustle, Wafler said, “We do not do this to reprimand; we do this to uplift.”

The project is now moving beyond just tracking the employees. Harvest data is pulled out into charts. The camera details in real time where the unloads occur, and shows exactly where unloaded bins of different varieties sit in the orchards.

“We know where we are all the time,” Paul Wafler said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

Top: Paul, Susan and Kyle Wafler near Wolcott, New York. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman


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