Apr 15, 2016
IFTA spotlights Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp production

For a long time, Red Delicious was the backbone of the U.S. apple industry. If you wanted a dependable income, you grew that variety.

But the crop mix is more complicated today and competition for the stomach is fierce. Consumers want apples with superior texture and flavor and are willing to pay more for them, said R.J. Simons, sales manager for BelleHarvest Sales in Michigan.

Three varieties in particular – Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp – have increased substantially in popularity, to the point where the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) dedicated an entire day to them during its recent conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Calling them the “moneymakers,” speakers covered the three varieties from multiple angles.

Red Delicious is still the top variety in terms of volume, but it’s been in decline since the 1990s, along with other traditional varieties like Golden Delicious. Meanwhile, the moneymakers have been growing in volume and profitability. According to 2015 data from Nielsen Perishables Group, Gala, Honeycrisp and Fuji are the top three selling varieties in the United States, based on dollars earned.


According to Matt Wells, an Extension specialist with Cornell University, you should have yield data on all your blocks and varieties and know which are making money and which are not. The least profitable blocks should be pulled. In new systems, you want high yields and consistent fruit quality. Standardization aids efficiency and mechanization. High-density systems pay back the soonest, though establishment costs are high.

Choosing which varieties to plant these days is a gamble. Even Honeycrisp is risky (are there too many?). Listen to your marketers and pay attention to trends, Wells said.appleproductionUSApple

According to Rod Farrow, owner of Lamont Fruit Farm in New York state, this is a great time to be an apple grower, but very risky. Pick the right varieties and the best sites. Hire an adequate work force to manage all tasks on a timely basis. You want an efficient, productive, narrow canopy orchard system with a uniform bearing surface. Prune the canopy for light, ideal fruiting wood and bud load. Manage crop load for ideal sizes. Give every ideal-size apple enough sunlight to have excellent color. Pick multiple times if necessary.

According to Brett Anderson, a Michigan grower and crop insurance agent, modern high-density orchards have establishment costs ranging from $20,000 per acre to $50,000. Risks to that investment include hail storms, drought and freeze events. Ways to mange those risks include crop insurance, frost protection, irrigation, hail nets and stronger trellis systems.

Anderson said you need to understand your farm’s financial position. Can you withstand a downturn in the market? Do you have enough cash to get through a difficult year?


Rootstocks, training systems

Gennaro Fazio, a plant breeder and geneticist with USDA, discussed efforts to breed designer rootstocks that would match with and enhance profitable varieties like the moneymakers. That will take time, however, and more thorough knowledge of both rootstock and scion is needed. What strengths might the rootstock have that could be imparted to the scion? The interaction between scion and rootstock is complex – and that’s before you throw in the effects of soil, climate, disease, insect and orchard management practice, he said. Mario Miranda Sazo, a Cornell fruit specialist, discussed the tall spindle training system for all three varieties.

“The best training system is the one where you understand how and why you are imposing each step,” Sazo said. “The more complicated you make the tree, the harder the production system becomes for you and your workers.”

Hand thinning apples is incredibly precise, but also expensive.
Hand thinning apples is incredibly precise, but also expensive.

With simple training systems, workers have to make fewer decisions. A simple training system also makes the fruitlets, branches and fruit very accessible to workers for hand thinning, pruning or harvest. When workers are faced with a superabundance of pruning cut alternatives, they’re afraid of making the wrong choice. As a result, they’ll delay the decision, default to the safest cut or avoid choosing altogether. They’ll work harder, not smarter, and you’ll end up growing wood not fruit, he said.

The tall spindle system is easy to teach, easy to grow, simple and productive. Its narrow canopies are more suitable for orchard mechanization. On the negative side, the system’s minimal pruning concept through the fourth year can easily be misunderstood, delayed renewal pruning can create dense canopies, and the lack of systematic pruning for a mature top can create excessive shading. Tall trees are not easy to reach, and limb bending is required for vigorous cultivars, Sazo said.

Hank Markgraf of B.C. Tree Fruits talked about the super spindle system in British Columbia. Land costs are high in the Canadian province and small parcels are common. The average farm is 12 acres.

As a result, growers want maximum production per acre. The goal is to reach 75 to 85 bins per acre per year. To produce 75 bins per acre, you need 60 to 65 apples per tree. But to achieve that perfect 65 apples per tree (you should actually shoot for 75, to account for loss), you want 65 (75) perfectly spaced buds. Prune to a bud count, but don’t leave too many buds on the tree. More buds equals more apples, but that does not equate to more profits, he said.

“Leaving 65 good apples per tree sounds insane, but if you do the math and Mother Nature doesn’t mess you up, you’ll do pretty good,” Markgraf said.

Justin Finkler, operations manager for Riveridge Land Co., detailed his company’s V-trellis plantings. IFTA attendees saw the V-trellis systems firsthand at the Riveridge farm in

Honeycrisp saw an increase of 17.3 percent in earnings in 2015, according to Nielsen Perishables Group.
Honeycrisp saw an increase of 17.3 percent in earnings in 2015, according to Nielsen Perishables Group.

Grant, Michigan, during a tour later in the week.

While the V-trellis system for apples has long been established in other parts of the world, namely Washington state, Riveridge is the first to bring the technique to Michigan, Finkler said. The goal was greater yields with the highest possible pack-out and quality, and for the system to lend itself to work platforms.

The first V-trellis planting, in 2014, was 17 acres of Royal Red Honeycrisp on Nic.29 rootstock, with a 12-foot by 2-foot spacing (1,815 trees per acre). The next year, Riveridge planted 35 more acres with the same variety, rootstock and spacing. The trees have taken well and more plantings are planned for 2016: 64 acres of Premier Honeycrisp, Aztec Fuji and Gale Gala, Finkler said.

Crop, nutrient management

Tory Schmidt, a research associate with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC), discussed precision crop load management in Washington state. He said WTFRC has conducted more than 300 crop load flowers to be fertilized after they have been pollinated, based on ambient temperature. The information helps inform crop load management decisions, especially the timing of chemical bloom thinners.

Based on feedback from users, it’s best to use the pollen tube model where there’s a consistent bud count from one year to the next, Schmidt said.

Lailiang Cheng, a Cornell professor, discussed tree nutrient management. He said nutrient requirements are dependent on yield. In yield-dependent nutrient management, the goal is to replace the amount of nutrients removed by fruit harvest to sustain the tree’s productivity and fruit quality.

Trees have relatively high nitrogen status early in the season to promote rapid canopy development and early fruit growth. As the season progresses, nitrogen status gradually declines to guarantee fruit quality development and wood maturity, Cheng said.

The amount of nitrogen you need to apply depends on the tree’s N status and the natural supply from the soil. The highest N demand occurs from bloom to the end of shoot growth, followed by a lower but steady demand. Other nutrients show a relatively constant demand from bloom to harvest, he said.

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor


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