Nov 16, 2016
Trial and error a big theme during IFTA summer tour

New York state apple grower Jeff Smith showed off plantings of NY 1 and NY 2 during the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) summer tour in upstate New York.

Ledge Rock Farms near Medina, New York, has incorporated tall spindle plantings, a common strategy seen at several tour stops.

Growers viewed a 4.5-acre block that was fenced in 2013. The first 100 NY1 and NY2 trees on Nic.29 rootstock were planted in 2011. NY1 on G.30 and NY2 on G.41 were planted a year later.

The second planting of NY1 and NY2 incorporated the use of trickle irrigation, a mounted platform for trellis construction and the execution of more timely and precise horticultural practices for maximum and safe tree growth.

Smith showed a replant site at which trees were removed after 2008. Corn was grown for two years and beans for one. Rye and radish cover crop plantings were made prior to the orchard being planted in 2013.

“Because of replant issues, we decided to put NY1 on G.30,” Smith said. “NY2 is a stronger grower, so we put it on G.41, with two rows of G.11. We thought the production capacity of those rootstocks were going to be better than some of the ones we’re currently using.”

The farm used horizontal wires without irrigation in a 2010 orchard planting.

“Those trees still have not filled their space,” he said. “Ever since then, we decided we’re going to do vertical support. NY1 has bamboo for vertical support. I’m a real strong believer in that. We try to go through and make sure those leaders stay up and keep growing.”

Smith said the system enabled a move to an older tractor “to a low-cost way to get into a platform for trellis construction pruning. Now we have a mounted air compressor for pruning the winter, also for the vortex tip fasteners.”

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Smith shares a weather station with a neighbor, using Cornell University’s Network for Environment Weather Applications (NEWA) for irrigation monitoring.

“This (drought-like) year has been really easy; just turn the water on,” he said. “If you’re spending the type of money we are, it’s dumb not to do it.”

Setting growth, yield and packout goals prior to each season, Smith said “it’s really important to start out with something to shoot for. During the year we make sure we stay on track. We have our pruning plan in there, nutrient regulator, sprays done by variety once trees get a little older.”

Ledge Rock Farms “started chemically thinning all we could, especially the first couple of years, knocking all the leaders off,” Smith said. “We thinned the leaders the last two years, tying leaders because we don’t want to get any bends. We want the trees to grow and get up there right away.”

Smith said the farm is “still learning the pruning concepts with tall spindle. We’re very surprised that NY1 outgrew NY2. It was clear after the first year. It ended up being strong on G.30. We should have removed more limbs each year and done more singling along the limbs. We’re kind of learning as we’re going.”

He said NY2 has a lot of forks on the end of the branch “and if you don’t take them off they load up the buds and they pull the branch down so far that it’s not really a useful branch to you. So we ended up getting a couple of battery pack pruners and doing a little more detail work here than I anticipated.”

In managing growth, Smith has used 3 ounces on Apogee three times on the tops of the trees.

“We also, this year, did 6 ounces three times. This year, we also started root pruning using a tractor root pruner. We pruned inside the drip line on both sides. This year on every orchard we have, except last year’s planting, we’re trying to slow the growth down.”

He said a block ideally would have 79.2 apples per tree, leading to 1,200 bushels of 80-count apples.

Bring it on, Honeycrisp

Grower Daniel Pettit, who owns Pettit Farms in Medina with Charles and Thomas Pettit, works closely with Mario Miranda Sazo, Cornell Cooperative Extension, to modify tree training practices on Honeycrisp.

“We were not training trees as well as we should have on Honeycrisp,” Pettit said. “We’ve had some problem blocks on the farm. That evolved to a bamboo, three-wire system, in order to walk under and train the tree. So that’s how we came up with this.

“I was very upset with how we grew Honeycrisp,” Pettit said. “When finding out it was a weak-growing tree, it kind of rejuvenated my excitement for apple growing because it was going to be such a test to grow this tree. It was really quite exciting – very intense management with a lot of things you have to do right with this, and I believe we did that.”

Mario Miranda Sazo
Mario Miranda Sazo

Sazo said texture is vital to a canopy fruiting unit.

“You want a tree where everything is very small,” Sazo said. “We started learning by growing a weak cultivar that if you start leaving any big piece of wood at the base, that at any moment along the trunk you have to start removing that. So the minimal planning concept in the tree for year one through four, that’s going to depend on the fertility, the combination of the rootstock and scion and how weak the cultivar is and how well supported the tree is.

“If we’re really going to grow the tree, you’re going to have 10 pruning cuts already in this tree, not letting this tree really produce big, big wood,” Sazo said. “We don’t want that. We don’t want to grow big wood. What we want is to grow fruit in very small fruiting branches – very productive, very fruitful when planting 2 feet apart.”

Pettit said the farm manually reduced wood size through chemical thinning in years one and two.

“If that didn’t work, during year three and four we removed all the blossoms on the leader, probably 24 inches down to the first fruiting branch. And all the while we were training that tree and never letting that leader bend over. That is the most lush, weak, pathetic little leader you ever did see. You have to because these trees are so tiny, they need that support. There’s no way around it.”

Sazo said less is more in proper fruit tree management.

“In New York, we’ve been very lazy,” he said. “We’ve had to do it with one or two or three wires, or five wires. Why shouldn’t we use seven wires? The maximum should be 18 to 20 inches. You should have a vertical support, but you need to babysit, manicure and take care of the leader until you are able to get to the top.”

Pettit agreed with Cornell Extension’s Matt Wells, who sees up to 60 percent efficiency gains by using platforms for thinning tasks in a tall spindle system.

“None of that is possible without a platform,” Pettit said. “None of our orchards previous to this look anything close to this, whether they have bamboo or not. You can construct a beautiful orchard with a platform and remain on top of things. It’s more efficient and paid for itself many times over.”

“I want to congratulate Daniel,” Sazo said. “They’ve been working the last three years in this planting, now producing 56 apples per tree – about 800 bushels this season.”

Field Day

The IFTA tour visited the Cornell Fruit Field Day at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, where participants were exposed to a number of research concepts and production innovations, including the following:

Targeted spraying. Andrew Landers, a pesticide application technology specialist in Cornell’s Department of Entomology, and his research assistant, Thomas Palleja, demonstrated sensor-controlled sprayer technology to improve spray application effectiveness for growers.


“What you’re really interested in is changing the volume speed of the air,” said Landers, who is working to develop the technology with growers, including Lamont Fruit Farm/Fish Creek Orchards in Albion.

Sensor-driven spray flow and data sensing for spray effectiveness is possible, even for lower-budget growers, Landers said.

“This machine will adjust the application volume of air and liquid,” he said. “Traditionally, we’re used to having a big apple tree with a big (spray) fan. As that large volume enters the tree, there were so many branches that you get turbulence. When you get air turbulence, that’s when the droplets fall out of the spray cloud or spray group. Now, with modern, very narrow canopy trees that are summer pruned, people get all of the apples exposed. We no longer have that air turbulence.

“When air moves toward a body, as the air goes, the rounder the body is the greater the boundary layer, and the air will diverge and go around and converge behind it. If you shut down the air, it will get closer and will converge,” Landers said.

“An apple is a wonderful sphere,” he said. “If you have high-speed air, such as with an Agtec airblast sprayer, 190 miles an hour in a modern spindle planting, we wonder why we get very little spray. If we slow down the air, we therefore get better deposition on the fruit by automating it.”

GPS technology is used to reduce the fan speed based on its position in the orchard according to the canopy density. It’s a process that can be done through sensors automatically or with manual adjustment.

Deborah Breth
Deborah Breth

Weed control. Deborah Breth, retired Cornell Cooperative Extension-Lake Ontario Fruit Program educator, talked about weed control results targeting treatments for yellow toadflex, erect and prostrate knotweed and bindweed. Among her major points were:

  • Pre-plant preparation dictates the weed species that will challenge the production system
  • Expect more than one weed control application every year in tall spindle, with abundant sunshine and trickle irrigation
  • Fall weed control will relieve some of the work in spring: scab control, fire blight sprays, fertilization, tree planting, trellis installation and fruit thinning. All of these tasks demand growers’ attention while weeds are growing in the spring.
  • Late application of residual herbicide can result in poor activation if it’s a dry season. Rainfall is more reliable in the fall to activate residual herbicides in the weed seed germination zone.
  • Weeds are typically too tall for control if you wait until late spring. It increases the risk of tree injury with postemergent herbicides on tree trunks. Watch hot temperatures when applying that “burn.” Do not spray herbicides across the tree rows with flood nozzles.
Lailiang Cheng
Lailiang Cheng

Rootstocks and bitter pit. Cornell researcher Lailiang Cheng outlined the impact of rootstock selection on bitter pit in Honeycrisp.

“We look at the uptake of calcium and other nutrients by the rootstock and then look at how calcium is portioned between the leaves and the rootstock. And if we still couldn’t (detect) it, we need to spray calcium to the fruit,” Cheng said.

“Rootstock plays a very important role in this whole scheme,” Cheng said. “It affects uptake, it affects partitioning, and perhaps the only way in the future for determining a long-term solution to the bitter pit problem in Honeycrisp is to find a rootstock that is not only dwarf and is tolerant to fire blight, replant, but also takes up nutrients’ imbalance and allows the nutrients to partition to the fruit in Blossom blight Apple scab the level and ratio we want.

“In the last 10, 15 years, (Cornell’s) Terence (Robinson) has done a lot of work evaluating different Geneva rootstocks and (USDA’s) Gennaro (Fazio) has released several new rootstocks, and the nutrition part was sort of lagging behind. Gennaro started looking to different rooststock performance in terms of nutrition two to three years ago. I started doing some work to look at the comparison between Gala and Honeycrsip and looked at the rootstock, in fact, last year. It’s interesting that across different rootstocks the difference in calcium level between Honeycrisp and Gala holds. Honeycrsip has only about 50 percent of the calcium you find in Gala fruit. So that’s a varietal difference. But rootstock makes a difference, too.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

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