Mar 10, 2016
IFTA tours highlight Michigan fruit industry

Visitors to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) 59th annual conference in February were treated to an inside look at the apple capital of Michigan during orchard tours in the area where 80 percent of the state’s fresh-market apples are sold.

Organizers described “The Ridge” – just north of Grand Rapids – as the center of the Michigan fresh apple industry and the home of the highest concentration of “on-the-farm” apple storages in the world.

There was much more than the region’s apple production on display, however, as cherry and pome fruit systems also were showcased for 385 attendees who packed seven buses for eight stops at orchards and packing operations.

The Ridge tour was preceded by a pre-conference tour that visited Michigan State University’s Clarksville Research Center, where the NC-140 cherry training systems trial is entering its seventh year. The high tunnel/stone fruit/fruiting wall systems (now going into the seventh season) and the vertical axe/tall spindle/apple hedging project also were front and center. That tour concluded at Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery.

Justin Finkler 1
Justin Finkler of Riveridge Land Co. discusses V-systems.

A post-conference tour took participants to the chilly environs of northwest lower Michigan for several more fruit stops.

The visit to The Ridge featured several stops that tied into the “Precision Generation” theme of the conference.

A V-system Honeycrisp orchard was on display at Riveridge Land Co. Manager Justin Finkler said the V-system is expected to produce 20 percent more yield per acre, part of the Return On Investment (ROI) formula. The other part includes the precision orcharding of the V-system, which boosts income with improved fruit quality and thus captures higher prices. These systems produce the greatest yields because they capture maximum sunlight per acre. This gives these systems big yields per acre (100 bins).

Finkler said these systems are more expensive to establish and the risks are high. But high risk equals high return.

It was evident growers on “The Ridge” are well on their way to precision production, with an estimated 50-60 percent having transitioned to high-density production.

Finkler talked about Riveridge’s approach, which includes new planting systems and technologies, including precision apple thinning, blossom thinning, use of apple harvesters and a window hedger, along with high-density plantings that now include the V-system for apples and the UFO system for sweet cherry.

Riveridge was the first in the area to start marketing new varieties like Jonagold and Honeycrisp. It is the largest shipper of fresh apples in Michigan.

Finkler displayed 2014 and 2015 plantings of V-system Honeycrisp apples.

“We have always known that V’s and Y’s and Tatura-type systems produce the greatest yields because those systems capture maximum sunlight on an acre,” he said. “This gives these systems big yields per acre.”

Multifaceted approach

Rasch Family Orchards, with 500 acres of fruit on five main farms, has been operated by six generations; it grows significant amounts of pears and stone fruit (peaches and apricots) in an area that is lesser known for those crops. Brothers Jake and Nick Rasch, along with their father Don, talked about the fresh peach V-system, Spanish bush apricots and high-density pears, along with their Honeycrisp tall-spindle approaches.

A young planting of peaches – heading toward third leaf, grown in a V-trellis system planted at 5-by-16-feet – is a challenge, but works well on a site with 1,000-foot elevation. Jake Rasch said the operators are struggling with bacterial canker in the peach setup.

The Rasch family has planted a vertical axe-type system for more than 20 years, but in 2010 started planting tall spindle on 3-by-12 spacing with a four-wire system. They now have nearly 100 acres of tall spindle on Nic.29 rootstock of Gala, Honeycrisp, Fuji and other varieties.

The Rasches planted pears trained to a fruiting-wall type system, tying limbs down and tipping long laterals but not tipping the leader. The varieties include Bartlett, Bosc, Sunrise and Harrow Sweet. The 2003 planting includes 4 acres of Harrow Sweet, Bosc and Bartlett on OHXF97. The 2015, 4-acre planting is trellised tall spindle, 3 by 14 on four wires on OHxF87.

Jake Rasch said they market their pears to direct marketers. They use 200# calcium nitrate on young trees to get them growing, usually about June 1. From watching pear research experiments, they use Apogee at 2 ounces per acre on new and young trees to protect against fire blight.

At New Leaf Orchards in Kent City, Michigan, the Nyblad family has planted a multileader system. The Nyblads worked with Italy’s Alberto Dorigoni to bring this system to Michigan.

The young planting has been defruited in the past years to encourage tree growth. The ultimate goal of this planting is to get the canopy full and ready for mechanization.

Gunnar Nyblad of New Leaf Orcahrds talks about the best approaches to growing quality fruit.
Gunnar Nyblad of New Leaf Orcahrds talks about the best approaches to growing quality fruit.

Bill, Nick and Gunnar Nyblad run 450 acres of fruit consisting of apples, peaches, plums, sweet and tart cherries. They also recently started growing multiple varieties of hops.

The apple blocks have been trained in numerous ways. The combination of varieties with weak (Honeycrisp) to strong (Fuji, Mac) vigor on rootstocks with low vigor (Bud 9) to strong vigor (G-30) give the spectrum of tree growth and fruitfulness and vegetative state. Apogee was mostly applied to fire blight-susceptible varieties. C-30 rootstock received extra treatments of Apogee.

Honeycrisp trees were “defruited” in years one, two and three to encourage growth. This was done by stub pruning the laterals in year one and two, and the results were “impressive,” Gunnar said.

NC-140 site

Joe Rasch Orchards in Conklin, Michigan, is the site of an NC-140 Honeycrisp trial. There are 33 different rootstock that are being evaluated on the vigorous site.

Joe Rasch, who runs the first operation in Michigan to plant Tatura trellis and the first to adopt Gala, is proud to be part of the NC-140 effort, but he believes the biggest challenges the fruit industry faces in the future are government regulations and labor. The technology he would like to work with in the future is mechanical assistance machinery.

Joe Rasch
Joe Rasch discusses the NC-140 Honeycrisp trial at Joe Rasch Orchards.

The NC-140 trial thus far has shown that cumulative yields have been best for trees on G.935 and G.11, followed by B.9. Production on the 2010 planting has been worst on the most vigorous rootstocks plus PiAu.9-90, said team member Gennaro Fazio of Cornell University, a USDA plant breeder and research geneticist based in Geneva, New York.

Thome Orchards’ featured an equipment display, along with a report on its hedging trial that Michigan State University (MSU) has been conducting for nearly four years.

Lunch was served at Storage Control Systems, which has donated space to house the MSU Apple Maturity Lab. The lab enables Extension personnel to give local growers updates on pest management approaches near harvest time.

The tour included a stop at the state-of-the art packing line and cold storage rooms at Heeren Companies in Comstock Park, Michigan. Heeren has the newest and largest apple packing line in Michigan. Heeren distributes more than 3,000 produce SKUs for more than 650 customers, servicing independent grocers, institutions and restaurants with fresh produce.

The company is repurposing its orchards over the next four years with new plantings that will drive production from a 10,000-bin operation to 40,000 bins through high-density plantings, irrigation, frost control and many of the latest technologies, according to Matt Thiede, who hosted the tour.

For more photos, visit the 2016 IFTA Conference Tours photo gallery.

Gary Pullano, associate editor


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