Planning new apple orchards
Cornell pomologist Terence Robinson shares his thoughts about making profitable orchards.
Platforms can be used to advantage in tall spindle orchards.
Cornell University pomologist Dr. Terence Robinson would never tell apple growers what to do…exactly. Their decisions are strictly up to them, he tells them.
But, when in the next sentence he starts, “In my opinion,” or “We recommend,” don’t be surprised. He firmly states his views and backs them up with slides showing experimental results, graphs showing yields, and charts showing economic data that he has steadily built over a dozen years.
Robinson is a popular speaker on the winter horticultural meeting circuit. He and his colleagues at Cornell—Steve Hoying, Mike Fargione, Mario Miranda, Alison DeMaree, Kevin Iungerman, and others—have been experimenting with and developing an orchard design system called tall spindle, and a management system to go with it, for almost two decades. Robinson has the model orchard firmly in his mind, and he gives a passionate talk as he conveys the image to growers.
Robinson gave one of those talks to apple growers during the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylania, in February.
Not too old
“For those growers who think they can coast along with their existing plantings or are too old to change, I hope to change your minds,” he said.
He described a “50-40-10” plan for orchard planting and renewal, in which growers make some new plantings every year. He recommends that half the new plantings be made using solid-performing wholesale varieties, while 40 percent are planted to the best new high-price, high-demand varieties, and 10 percent are new varieties that look promising, but are gambles on the future. Here are his recommendations, step by step:
—Conduct a continual replanting program. “I’m convinced that every apple grower should be planting some new orchards every year,” he said. “It allows you to stay on the cutting edge of new varieties and new fruit systems, and to take advantage of the new things you learn each year.”
—Replant 4 to 5 percent of the farm annually. This keeps the nonbearing percentage under 15 percent and allows the entire farm to be replanted over 20 to 25 years, he said.
—Plant fresh fruit blocks at a density of 900 to 1,300 trees per acre in the tall spindle system. Trees should be 3 to 4 feet apart with 10 to 12 feet between rows, and a thousand trees per acre is probably the most profitable density.
—Plant processing fruit blocks at a density of 500 to 700 trees per acre in the vertical axis system. Trees should be 5 feet apart with 13 to 14 feet between rows.
—Plant highly feathered trees and manage them, with no pruning but by bending and tying down lateral branches (feathers) in the first year, so they will bear fruit already in the second leaf.
—Choose the right varieties. “The price you receive for your fruit is more important than any consideration of orchard design,” he said.
While Robinson believes that the best profits for growers will come from growing apples for the fresh market, he acknowledged that in the Northeast, half or more of all apples are grown for processing, and many growers plan to continue to plant and grow blocks of apples especially for processing. Still, he said, fresh fruit is more profitable by about five orders of magnitude than fruit grown for processing.
Some varieties can go for either fresh or processing, and anybody growing for processing should plant some fruit varieties that can go fresh, he said. Nonetheless, he has two separate lists of apples to grow, depending on the intended market.
To minimize risk, he said, plant the best fresh-market varieties on 50 percent of new orchards. For New York growers, these solid performers include red strains of Gala like Brookfield; red strains of McIntosh like LindaMac, RubyMac, Snappy, and Acey Mac; Empire and Cortland, especially the strains that do well when treated with SmartFresh (1-MCP); the best red strains of Red Delicious; and the Smoothee or Reinders strains of Golden Delicious.
To generate high returns, plant 40 percent to new varieties that have been selling at high prices. These include Honeycrisp; the Rubinstar, DeCoster and Red Prince strains of Jonagold; Golden Supreme; the early strains of Fuji like September Wonder, Auvil Early, and Beni Shogun; the full-season strains of Fuji like Aztec, Kiku Fubrax, Top Export, and Suprema; and Cameo.
Gamble for very high returns on a small acreage, 10 percent, he said. In New York, where in-state growers have access to the new Cornell varieties named New York 1 and New York 2, these should be planted in that “gambling on the future” category. It also includes, for growers anywhere, the club varieties Ambrosia, Piñata, Jazz, Envy, Pacific Rose, Blondee, and SweeTango.
In the processing category, the solid-performing 50 percent in New York include Idared, Jonagold, McIntosh, Cortland, Crispin, and Rome. “You have additional ones here,” he told the Mid-Atlantic growers.
Those in the 40 percent category that processors pay a premium for include Autumn Crisp and Granny Smith.
New York 2, which was bred by Cornell as a dual-purpose apple, fits into the gambling-10-percent category for a processing apple.