Oct 1, 2015
Washington state maneuvers past 2015 challenges

Washington state has had its share of fruit production challenges in 2015, among the latest being wildfires that struck portions of key fruit packing facilities in Chelan County in mid-August.

Organizers of the July 15-17 Regional Summer Tour sponsored by the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) were the first to acknowledge 2015 hasn’t been without significant obstacles for growers.

“This tour is focused on precision horticulture, and at end of day it’s all about execution,” said Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension educator.

Weatherwise, Lewis said, “it’s a very early year. In my 27 years, early years are not good years – the fruit condition suffers.”

“We have some fantastic orchards and when you ride by them going 60 down the road, it’s mind-boggling,” she said. “Every tree looks the same. Every limb looks the same. Up to 700 acres all look the same. If you slow down – like we do on this trip – it looks a little different than when you’re going 60 on the road. We grow high-density, highly productive, profitable systems, and it all comes down to execution. But not everyone’s doing it perfect. Execution is failing on every farm, bar none. The uniformity we see going 60 down the road is not the way it is.”

She pointed to “the huge dollar involved” in farming tree by tree “so that we know what’s going on with six trees in an 1,800-foot row. We measure and monitor everything, then try to manage everything.”

She said the early growing season – marked by record-high temperatures and fruit running two weeks ahead of schedule – created depleted tree conditions, sunburn, hail and grass fires.

“Everything’s on fire around us – it’s not a good year,” she said. “We have dry winds at night, no snowfall. Despite our successful Columbia Basin Project, it wasn’t cold enough and we don’t have enough water.”

Despite what Lewis termed a “bit of a problem child here” due to the early season; the long-term viability of the industry is strong.

The IFTA tour took a circuitous route through Richland, Mattawa, Basin City, Eltopia, Wapato, Naches, Selah, Yakima, Mattawa, George, Quincy, Richland – and all points in between.

Lewis said the biggest benefit the state’s agriculture community has going for it is the success of the Columbia River Basin Reclamation Project. It contributes greatly to the region’s ability to manage its water resources.

Precision reigns

That reality enables the state’s fruit producers to concentrate on the development of precision horticulture techniques.

Among those tackling execution head on is Dave Allan of Yakima Valley Orchards’ Columbia View Ranch. Lewis said Allan has been a vocal leader for the development of efficient apple harvesting systems.

Allan showed off some pedestrian blocks of Buckeye Gala on Mark rootstock, which is a short, worker friendly vertical system with 20-foot by 10-foot spacing. He planted a 1-acre block in 2010 and a 3-acre block in 2013. In 2013, he harvested 68 bins an acre. In 2014, that became 100 bins an acre.

That shows that getting rid of ladders can be effective – if the economics pay off. And don’t diminish the high cost of labor injuries from ladder mishaps, Lewis noted.

Allan has bigger hopes for future labor-reducing harvesting solutions.

“Economics, horticulture and engineering have to run together,” he said. “I’m 71 years old, and I’m fairly optimistic that before I die we’re going to have a working prototype that will look halfway decent, and there will be refinements after that.

“The main reason I’m optimistic is there have been tremendous advances in imaging, in robotics and computers. I’m talking to people throughout the U.S. and internationally. I’m trying to be the cheerleader for this type of thing. I think people are very open to projects throughout the world.”

He said the reason is obvious.

“Labor is becoming more difficult to maintain and becoming more expensive. Here in Washington we have a huge infrastructure – buildings, packing lines. Our weakest link is accessing labor.

“H-2A is very expensive, getting close to a $20 bill an hour once you factor in housing, transportation, administrative costs. I think in the future we are very vulnerable if we don’t work on automation. But I think things are very optimistic.”

Travis Allan, Dave’s son, showed visitors a standard 34-acre Buckeye Gala block planted in 2013 on M.9 337 rootstock. The vertical trellis system features 18-feet by 12-inch spacing and is irrigated with sprinkler and drip.

Allan explained how the operation changed the block’s training system and kept trees stress free, with individual tree treatments. It was bloom-thinned by hand.

“We have worked hard to even out tree performance,” he said. “This is the first crop year and we want to be at 30-40 bins per acre. We want to make it an 85-100 bin per acre block and not have a monumental task of building it.”

Allan said a plant and place procedure is used. “We buy root tissue culture, having rehabbed older Geneva blocks this year. Bench grafts and Sleeping Eyes (rootstock) both work, but you have transplant shock. (Plant and place) gets you to 13 feet in two years instead of three years. When you’re spending $10,000 on the trellis, you’ve really got to get motivated. We plant Sleeping Eye, full size, or bench graft by putting them in with stakes.”

The block has three irrigation systems – an overhead cooling system in the second year, frost system sprinklers under the tree and a drip system used to grow trees the first three years.

A walkway system is employed crossways in the rows to allow easy worker mobility and smoother maintenance of the irrigation system.

Jazz on display

One of the tour stops was the Wapato, Washington-based Doornink Fruit Ranch. Grower Jim Doornink survived a purge of fruit producers in the state early in the previous decade, only to be left wondering whether he would be able to compete with larger producers in recent years.

He not only found ways to survive in the midst of the Yakima River Basin, he’s about to the join the ranks of 100-bin-per-acre performers, a benchmark that’s becoming the gold standard for many producers.

Doornink, who has been a commissioner with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission since 1984, displayed a 5.3-acre block of Jazz, a club variety developed by New Zealand-based ENZA.

The block was planted in 2009 on M.9-NIC.29 as a nursery tree at 14 by 1.5-feet spacing. It’s irrigated with R-10 micro with cooling.

“We have good senior water rights so we can run cooling on this block,” Doornink said. “It should help color development so we can pick at the front end of the market.”

Chemical thinning consists of lime sulfur at bloom followed at petal fall with Sevin + BA and then hand thinning.

Production on the block was 40.94 bins per acre in 2012, 35.85 in 2013 and 90.75 in 2014.

Doornink also talked about a 5-acre Gala block planted in 2009 on M.337 as a sleeping eye tree at 14 feet by 1.5 feet.

It also uses R-10 microirrigation with cooling. It was pruned using full bud count at full dormant and also was pruned to space out the clusters of fruit. In the first year, Doornink tried using bud count versus traditional pruning. Hand-blossom thinning was done to singles with no chemical follow up.

Production on the Gala block: 33.8 bins per acre in 2012, 54.8 bins in 2013 and 79.2 bins per acre in 2014.

Phil Doornink, Jim’s son, described a young Gala block planted in 2013 at 12 feet by 2 feet. Training was up two leaders per tree for 3.63 leaders per acre. Another Gala block was planted in 2014 on F.935 and G.41 at 12 feet by 3 feet. Training up two leaders per tree totaled 2,420 leaders per acre.

Jim Doornink said use of platforms for picking has cut harvesting time by 20 percent to 25 percent.

“At the end of the day you’re helping your workers psychologically and physically,” he said. “But you still have the guys who say, ‘I want my bin, my ladder and my wife. They don’t want to work in groups.”

Doornink farms 200 acres of apples, cherries, apricots, peaches, pears and apples, some of which is on the same property farmed by his grandfather.

Innovative approaches

Innovation and dexterity are in ample supply in the Washington fruit industry. This was on full display during the IFTA tour.

At Stemilt Ag Services, Saddle Mountain West, Dale Goldy pointed out the farm is located near many other farming operations, which lends to efficiency. The site is basically flat with good soil drainage. Local labor can be hard to attract due to the distance from city populations.

At Hi-Point Orchard in Basin City, Rick Orozco focuses apple production on an effective thinning program and by pruning for short and productive wood.

Bruce Allen operates Chiawana Orchard near Yakima at a 1,200-foot elevation. His Honeycrisp production approach includes under-tree micro and overhead cooling. They thin at bloom time with lime sulfur and fish oil.

Brent Milne at McDougall & Sons, Whispering Rocks Orchard, takes advantage of early entry into the market due to gravel and sandy soils and a very warm, south aspect with gentle slope to the south.

Bill McCombs at Valley Fruit, Royal 1 Orchard, manages Gala, Red Delicious and Fuji on the south side of the Royal Slope, providing ideal conditions for growing high-quality fruit.

Tim Welsh, IFTA president, showed off plantings at Winchester Orchard of Nicoter 2-top versus tall spindle systems. It’s an organic operation that was purchased in 2007 for production of new apple varieties.

McDougall & Sons’ Prospector Orchard near Quincy uses Cameron Select Honeycrisp on a steep V system.

Jason Matson of Matson Fruit described the disappointing performance of a replant Sleeping Eye Honeycrisp on an M.9-NIC.29 block planted in 2008 on a vertical trellis system.

“There are several reasons why it did not fill its space,” Matson said. “We let it flower too early on; we had some winter injury in it, although it was isolated. We kept too much of the wrong kind of wood. The block grew really well for two years. The third year it grew OK for a month and stopped, despite all the fertilizer we could put on it. We couldn’t get it growing again. I’m not saying it’s a bad block – it’s just not what I had hoped for. That’s a thing of the past.”

He then showed visitors a vertically trellised block of Honeycrisp on 16-inch by 5-foot spacing that was originally Jonagold on M.26 rootstock. It was grafted to Honeycrisp in 2010. In 2014, it produced 82 bins per acre, with 45 percent culls.

“One thing that stood out is that the top wire was about 12.5 to 13-feet tall. It almost never made it to the top, usually 9.5 to 10 feet average. I’m playing the hand that Honeycrisp is dealing me in that they don’t like to grow tall very much. We’ve gone to 10 feet, cramming them together on one wire less.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

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