Aug 2, 2019Michigan Ridge growers visit southwest neighbors
The Michigan Pomesters took their annual RidgeFest tour on the road Aug. 1, traveling from Sparta to southwest Michigan to learn about differences in climate, equipment and organic apple growing.
Farms visited were Molter Produce in Bainbridge Township near Benton Harbor, Michigan and High Acres Fruit Farm near Hartford. Attendees also toured Hilltop Fruit Trees near Decatur near Fennville.
Molter Produce is a 700-acre farm in Bainbridge Township near Benton Harbor. Owners Aaron and Kari Molter grow a variety of fresh vegetables, apples and peaches in addition to some field corn. The fifth-generation farm has been certified organic for more than 11 years. The farm began growing 25 acres of apples in 2008 and has drastically increased its production since then.
Aaron discussed his experiences in growing organic apples, which the Michigan Apple Committee and Michigan State University researchers have been studying in more detail. Growing apples organically in Michigan is not done by many growers because the rain and heat in the state often result in significant disease pressure.
Aaron Molter said he had been reluctant to do the tour, but he did share some details about his growing practices. For instance, he said there are rules about using treated lumber in organic orchards; at his own orchards, he has used steel supports in his trellis for that reason. He said there was a cost to running “split” organic and traditional farm operations alongside each other, and so he has decided to go completely organic.
“I’m getting better at understanding the fertilizers,” he also said. Sodium nitrate, blood meal, feather meal, manures and chicken litter are used.
Generally, he tried to encourage other growers to try organic.
“We’ve been told forever it’s not possible,” Molter said. “I hope today you’re able to take this from the fringe … to say, yes, this is possible if I’m willing to take the risk. We need other people to grow apples in Michigan, in the Midwest, to make it relevant, so we gain access to more markets.”
Hilltop Fruit Trees
Hilltop Fruit Trees nursery was established in 1909, and current owner Steve Flamm took over management in 2001. He said the company once provided a variety of fruit trees to customers all over the country, but has dropped cherries and peaches in order to focus on apples. The company is also increasingly focused on its Michigan clients.
Signwood orchards are difficult to establish, and the emergence of new varietals keep nurseries like Hilltop busy. Production manager Adam Rodriguez, who also handles sales, said an orchard needs to be checked for plant viruses every three years, and he accomplishes this by having a third of the orchard checked each year.
At the time of the visit, a crew was in the process of chip-budding sign wood to rootstocks. The grafting crew worked in pairs, with one member cutting the tree and inserting the bud, and another wrapping the graft.
Flamm and Rodriguez reported some difficulty finding enough Geneva rootstocks for the growers. They can get enough from nurseries that culture soft-tissue, but the resulting trees arrive very small and are very difficult to nurture to the right height for growers.
Growers are concerned about the height of the trees, so “we try to push them up to 5-foot tall,” Rodriguez said. The trees are carefully dug out – Hilltop displayed an experimental digger farm implement it recently invested in – and each one is carefully inspected before shipment.
“We run every tree through a grading line,” Flamm said.
High Acres Fruit Farm
The Meachum Family of Van Buren County farms about 5,500 acres of asparagus, strawberries, plums, juice grapes, apples, specialty tomatoes, corn, soybeans and wheat. About 245 acres at High Acres Fruit Farm are dedicated to apples, but as many as 358 acres have been used for apples in recent years, and the farm is currently in the process of renovating its orchards to varieties that are more profitable or are in demand for fresh sales. Their fresh apple varieties include Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Minneiska/SweeTango, Honeycrisp, Fuhi, Gala, Jonagold, Blondee and Pink Lady.
The farm is run by Douglas and Bonney Meachum in partnership with sons Trever, Jason and Ryan. Trever Meachum spoke about irrigation on the farm and the difference in climate between Southwest Michigan and the Ridge area.
“We tend to get better size than you get up north, but we sacrifice the color that you get up north,” he said. “It’s just a function of being in a warmer climate.”
In order to get better color, Meachums use a reflective white cloth that bounces light back up into the tree canopy. The sheets are held in place by bungee cables and can be ridden over by tractors, Trever Meachum said.
Trever spoke about the many varieties he’s planting. The farm’s apple trees were once 75% Red Delicious, and although some are being replaced, they continue to plant some new Red Delicious trees. “Reds have been good to us,” Meachum said.
Meachum said he had planted quite a few different apples, including even a few red-fleshed apple trees that are of interest for the Next Big Thing co-op that the farm is involved with.
But he was firm that, in general, novelty apples “have to eat” in order to be successful in the long run.
Some other varieties include SweeTango and Evercrisp, which he expects to do well.
“I think there’s enough horsepower now, behind the Evercrisp, the MAIA-1,” Meachum said.