May 12, 2016
Northwest Michigan growers planting at higher densities

Northwest Michigan’s fruit industry is in transition.

Wine grapes have been booming, but after two brutal winters and two failed crops in a row the region’s tourist-magnet wineries aren’t as certain about the future of their Vitis vinifera hybrids, which lack the cold hardiness of North American hybrids. Apple growers are transitioning from processing to fresh and are planting in higher densities. Even the tart cherry industry – the region’s fruit staple – is beginning to explore high- density plantings.

The International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) recently visited a few growers in northwest Michigan and learned more about the region’s fruit industry from Nikki Rothwell, a Michigan State University Extension educator and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center.


Rothwell said the five counties that make up northwest Michigan grow 60 percent of the nation’s tart cherries. There are three main reasons tarts grow so well in the region: light, sandy soils (tarts are susceptible to phytophthora); hills to plant trees on (so the cold air rolls downward); and Lake Michigan, which keeps the area cool in spring so the trees stay dormant longer and aren’t as susceptible to killing frosts.

But killing frosts can still do damage, as the major crop losses in 2002 and 2012 proved. And those events could happen with greater frequency. According to a projection, by the end of this century the “cherry capital of the world” can expect a viable crop of tart cherries about once every five years. Growers don’t always buy into such projections because there’s so much variability involved, but the research community is trying to figure out how to minimize the risks from a changing climate, Rothwell said.

Researchers are asking another question: Are high-density systems viable for the tart cherry industry? Currently, the vast majority of tarts grow on full-size trees on Mahaleb rootstock and are harvested by mechanical shakers. The expense of the shakers (about $180,000 apiece) and time spent waiting for the trees to be harvestable (about six years) make for a large investment of time and money in the current system. That makes existing growers reluctant to change, and new growers basically nonexistent.

“You can’t plant an orchard and have no revenue for six or seven years,” Rothwell said. “If you don’t marry into or come from a tart cherry family, there’s no way you’re going to jump into this industry.”

And even if you grow better fruit than the other guy, for the most part it won’t make you more money.

“In tart cherries, it’s all about tonnage,” she said. “If you have the best tarts in the world, you’ll still get the same price as anybody else.”

However, the tart cherry industry is trying to grow sales and shed its traditional image as just piefill by expanding into dried, frozen, concentrate and other markets. Higher- density systems have the potential to expand yields, but there’s so much to figure out, including the proper rootstocks, training and harvest methods, Rothwell said.

Calvin Lutz was recognized by IFTA for hosting a farm visit.
Calvin Lutz was recognized by IFTA for hosting a farm visit.

IFTA visited Lutz Farms in Bear Lake, where Calvin Lutz planted a high-density tart cherry block in 2013: Montmorency on Mahaleb rootstock. He shared some of his growing techniques with the visitors. The trees are on light soil, spaced 5.5 by 20 feet; irrigated with one line of RAM tubing; fertilized with 250 pounds of 20-20-20 spring mix per acre. In summer, the trees are top and side hedged with Christmas tree machetes. Tree middles are cut out to allow light into the canopy.

“There are more questions than answers right now, but if we don’t get going, it could be awhile before we get higher-density tart cherries,” Rothwell said. Northwest Michigan also grows a fair amount of sweet cherries, most of which are processed (maraschinos, yogurt, ice cream). Most of those cherries are grown on lower-density systems, Rothwell said.

IFTA visited Williams Orchards in Cedar, which is experimenting with high-density sweet cherries. According to owner Greg Williams, most of the test plantings were planted in 2010 – Regina, Attica and Benton, mostly on Gi12, with some Attica on Gi6, as well as a row of Benton on Gi6 trained to the UFO system. There’s also a 2011 planting: Black Pearl on Gi3.

Most of Williams’ sweet cherries are sold to area farm markets and out of his fruit stand in Cedar, which is very profitable. He would like to plant more high-density sweet cherries, but is limited by a lack of labor. Some of his cherries are shipped to packinghouses further south, which send workers to pick the fruit. It’s a unique arrangement but might not be sustainable, Rothwell said.


For northwest Michigan apples, the transition from processing to fresh has much to do with the success of Honeycrisp, which grows “beautifully” in the region. The emphasis on fresh has increased the adoption of high-density systems, but there are limitations. High-density apples need good fruit sites, which are becoming fewer and more expensive. There’s also a shortage of labor and a lack of fresh packinghouses, Rothwell said.

She said the farm labor stream that starts further south reaches its terminus in northwest Michigan.

“It’s not the end of the earth, but it’s close,” she said. “We really need to make our area attractive for labor.”

Growers are doing what they can: sharing labor, building more housing and hiring more H-2A guest workers, she said.

The region’s processing apples have been processed by local companies like Smeltzer Orchard for decades, but the vast majority of its fresh apples are hauled two or three hours south to the Ridge in west-central Michigan, where most of the state’s apples are grown and a fresh-packing infrastructure is in place, Rothwell said.

Bill Lentz Farm in Beulah displayed a 26-acre, high-density planting of SweeTango apples, mostly on Bud.9 but also on Nic.29, M.26 and V.1. Owner Bill Lentz uses drip irrigation, and said scheduling and duration of run times is determined by the “seat of your pants method” – keeping an eye on rainfall amounts, temperature and indicator plants.

Lentz’s Bud.9 trees haven’t done well on his sandy soils. It remains to be seen if that rootstock can grow well in the region, Rothwell said.

IFTA also visited VerSnyder Fruit Farms in Lake Leelanau, where Kevin VerSnyder grows hard cider varieties.

The consumption of hard cider is growing, and apple plantings need to keep up. Information about the best varieties, inputs and growing techniques is limited, however. As an early adopter of cider plantings, VerSnyder can provide critical information for prospective cider apple producers, Rothwell said.

Lack of land has forced VerSnyder to try high-density production. The verdict is still out on whether high-density systems are worth the investment for hard cider growers, Rothwell said.

Leonard Ligon, center, discusses his high-density apples with members of the International Fruit Tree Association. Photo: Matt Milkovich
Leonard Ligon, center, discusses his high-density apples with members of the International Fruit Tree Association. Photo: Matt Milkovich

The last grower stop was Ligon Farms on Old Mission Peninsula, a skinny strip of land that bisects Grand Traverse Bay. Owner Leonard Ligon was one of the earliest adopters of high-density apple plantings in northwest Michigan. His first higher-density planting was established in 1991.

Ligon showed his visitors a 5-acre field, which was first planted in 1938 to Northern Spy, Red Delicious and McIntosh. He took the old trees out in 1998 and replaced them with higher- density systems.

Ligon planted his first super spindle system in 2006. He had 16 bins to the acre the second year, with not a sign of bitter pit, so he thought, “Let’s plant the whole farm.” He planted high-density Honeycrisp blocks in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but he’s struggled with bitter pit since then.

He uses RAM tubing for irrigation, with one emitter every 1 foot instead of every 2 feet, because his region is one of the driest in the state in midsummer. His soil is of variable quality, “loamy sand and sandy loam,” with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. In the past season he applied potassium, magnesium, sulfur and boron to his soil, according to test recommendations.

Ligon has been exploring dormant and summer hedging, and pruning back hard-to-cut tops on trees that are too vigorous. He removes blossoms in year two and sometimes year three, depending on tree growth. He used to crop the trees right away, but found they were not reaching the top wire adequately. He hasn’t had much success with chemical thinning, so he removes all flowers by hand. He doesn’t tie down, and no wires are added to his plantings. He always tips each feather when he plants, which forces the tree to grow up and gets fruiting wood close to the trunk, he said.

Ligon plans to plant 8 acres of Honeycrisp on Bud.9 (which has been shown to have less bitter pit). He wants a spacing of 2 feet between each tree, with irrigation emitters on each side. He will not fruit the trees until they reach the top wire. He’s considering using a weed mat and moving away from herbicides to reduce tree stress (which could help fight bitter pit), he said.

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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