Apr 26, 2016
Equipment monitors orchard temperature

When it comes to apples, idealists continually search for the best one, pessimists settle for the one within easiest reach, while optimists take them all and make pies – or in the case of the Watson family in Sonora, California, hard apple cider and apple brandy.

Cedar Ridge Apple Ranch, doing business as Indigeny Reserve, is an organic orchard practicing sustainable agriculture on two plots, totaling nearly half of the 160 acres intermingled with forest and open space.

Patriarch Jay Watson hadn’t planned on apples as a career. He owned and operated a San Francisco-based communications business, and one day on his way home he noticed a for sale sign on the acreage adjacent to his residence in Cedar Ridge.

“My concern was that the land would be subdivided and lots of additional homes would become our new neighbors,” Watson said. “That’s when wife Judy and I, along with sons Joe and Ben, decided to learn a whole lot about growing apples.”

Now the two orchards in Tuolumne County have become a top tourist attraction, according to Yelp and TripAdvisor. The organically certified orchards and their rustic buildings reflect the family’s commitment to sustainability, with hard cider and brandy tasting bars, cider works and distilleries constructed with re- purposed cedar and oak milled on site.

Some of the trees date back to the early 1900s, and represent more than 50 varieties. After three years of sweat equity to transition the property into an organic operation, they discovered nearly half of their apples would not be salable.

“And that’s how we got into hard cider,” Watson said. “Then, once we got into hard cider and began to blend it, we ended up with leftover product, and that’s how we got into brandy and vodka.”

There are a lot of apple trees to be pruned and picked, including 20,000 Granny Smiths used in Indigeny’s hard cider, 7,000 Honeycrisps and 400 Red Romes.

“Our little corner of Sonora possesses the perfect climate and microclimates for superior apple growing,” according to the company’s web page. Still, there are challenges, particularly in temperature range changes, which require monitoring.

“We’re interested in technology that can help us monitor temperatures for frost protection, as well as turning on wind machines and irrigation flow to help with frost,” said son Joe, cider maker and orchard manager. Another son, Ben, is facilities engineer, while matriarch Judy acts as program director.

“Around April 15, when others are concerned about the IRS and taxes, we get concerned about freezes,” Watson said. “We can get down to the very low 20s for a week or two and have to keep a constant monitor on changing conditions, so we can turn on wind machines and warm-water irrigation to heat the orchards.”

Watson started looking for weather-monitoring equipment that could be placed in the orchards, relay information back to central computers and store it.

“The most recent addition, from Davis Instruments, has allowed us to add additional transmitters in the field, eight units that can historically store all data.”

In addition to the orchard temperature-control functions, the same units are used to monitor temperatures in the cold storage facilities, sounding threshold alarms if something changes.

“Those same units also monitor our 5,000-gallon fermentation tanks that convert sugars from the juice to alcohol,” Watson said. “We also use oxygen sensors that tell us if we need to add or remove oxygen during the sparging process.”

“The Watsons chose a Davis Instruments system because they wanted affordability without sacrificing accuracy,” according to company spokesman Doug Kohl. “They decided to use our weather station technology to increase apple production, and wireless temperature and moisture stations inside the orchards and production facilities to make their award-winning hard cider and brandy. In doing so, they joined a number of vineyards and almond growers who use wireless soil moisture and temperature stations to monitor rainfall, reduce water usage and increase production in the Central and Napa Valleys.

“For apple growers, air temperature – both heat and cold – is crucial, especially when the trees are in bloom,” Kohl said. “The Watsons were able to begin receiving data from their WeatherLink system within minutes of setup. Their scalable system allows adding of sensors and extending the network to remote corners of the orchard for data that is accessible, downloadable and archivable.”

— Lee Allen, FGN correspondent

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