Emigrant returns to grow apples
Hector Ordoñez spent 53 years in the United States before retiring in Mexico.
Washington State IPM consultant Naná Simone (right) chats with Chihuahua orchardist Hector Ordoñez.
After spending most of his life in the United States, Hector Ordoñez returned to Chihuahua, Mexico, to spend his retirement growing apples and corn on what used to be his grandfather’s farm.
Ordoñez was only three when his parents left the isolated farm, about 20 miles from Cuauhtémoc, to seek better opportunities north of the border. “My father, he got married and was struggling, so he moved to the states,” Ordoñez recounted.
His father worked in construction and became very successful. Every summer, the family returned to Mexico to spend two or three months at the farm.
Ordoñez attended a community college in Los Angeles, and has also lived in San Antonio and El Paso. Before retiring three years ago and returning to Mexico, he sold water purification systems in Mexico for a U.S. company.
“Most of the systems I used to sell, I have them installed in all my wells,” he said.
His grandfather planted trees on the farm about 30 years ago, and nurtured in Ordoñez an interest in horticulture and a desire to take over the farm.
“He planted the seed in me,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Grandpa, I live in the states. How can I continue this?’ He said, ‘You will find a way.’”
His grandfather started to teach him about farming, and after he died 23 years ago, Ordoñez spent more and more time at the farm. About nine years ago, he began planting more fruit trees. He’d visit for two months and then return to the United States.
Though thoroughly Americanized, he enjoyed spending time in Mexico. “I loved being down here and in the trees,” he said. “The more I came, the more I was interested, and now I’m still learning. I haven’t stopped learning.”
Ordoñez has 59 hectares (145 acres) of apples at his Buena Vista orchard and 40 hectares (100 acres) of corn. His apples include Red Chief Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Gala. He expects Gala to replace Red Delicious in the Mexican apple industry.
“We planted Gala nine years ago, and we’ve had very good success with it,” he said. “Personally, it’s my favorite apple, and it’s starting to catch on with the Mexican consumer.”
Eduardo “Lalo” Carrasco, horticulturist for the orchard, said fruit size averages 138 with Gala, and he’d like to grow bigger apples. Chemical thinning hasn’t worked very well. He feels he’s been less aggressive with thinning than he should be because of the high risk of spring frost.
On the positive side, the Gala apples are harvested early—between August 10 and 20—when the market pays high prices. The farm receives about U.S.$0.20 per pound for orchard-run fruit.
The orchard is covered by a black hail netting, which protects the fruit from the sun as well as hail. The net reduces available light by 20 percent. Ordoñez is also applying Raynox this year for sunburn control.
Irrigation water comes from wells 400 feet deep. Water is pumped from all the wells into an accumulation pond so that the water can be pumped with enough volume to meet the trees’ needs.
The diseases fireblight, mildew, and phytopthora are a concern. Carrasco said he tries to minimize the amount of irrigation he applies during the spring in order to lower the risk of fireblight, but he has to apply water to control spring frosts. Bloom can last for a month, and he alternates applications of the antibiotics streptomycin and terramycin for fireblight control.
Because the orchard is isolated, pests are of lesser concern than diseases. The main pests are aphids, codling moth, lygus bug, thrips, green fruit worm, and woolly apple aphid. Carrasco does not use mating disruption for codling moth because he gets adequate control with one or two sprays of Success (spinosad), Intrepid (methoxyfenoxide), or occasionally Lorsban (chlorpyrifos), which also help control the green fruit worm. He applies no herbicides, but controls weeds by hand hoeing, mechanical tillage, and a string trimmer.
He employs local people. Some are housed at the orchard, while others are bused back and forth between the orchard and their homes. He pays them U.S.$10 a day.
The older apple plantings are on Malling 7. In a newer block, Gala and Golden Delicious on M.9 rootstocks are planted on a 3-foot by 14-foot spacing.
Carrasco said early experiments with the M.9 rootstock were not successful, as the trees stopped growing when they reached 5 feet tall. But Richard Chavez, with ProTree Nurseries, California, kept encouraging Ordoñez to give it another try and said he would pay half the cost of establishing the high-density block. The planting, now in its seventh leaf, worked out well, Carrasco said, though not as wildly successful as they had hoped.
Fruit size has been small in the Galas, perhaps because of inadequate thinning, and it’s taken a long time for the trees to grow—perhaps because they were overcropped in the early years, he said. But the size of the Golden Delicious has been better, averaging 80 to 100 count. Fireblight and woolly apple aphid, which have colonized the rootstock, have been problems, as has the irrigation system, which was not designed for such close tree spacing. Sprinklers were spaced every 13 feet down the row, and trees between the emitters didn’t grow as well, resulting in uneven tree growth.
Carrasco said Ordoñez is thinking about using one of the Geneva rootstocks in upcoming plantings, and perhaps planting the trees a little further apart. “He’s looking for a rootstock that gives him a little quicker growth of the trees and more canopy per hectare.”
Members of the International Fruit Tree Association who visited the orchard recommended planting the trees closer together, rather than switching to a more vigorous rootstock. With rows 10 feet apart, production per acre would be higher, Wilfrid Mennell of British Columbia, Canada, pointed out.
Bruce Currie of British Columbia stressed the importance of keeping the soil surface wet for trees on M.9, which has a shallow root system. He recommended a drip emitter for each tree, as a tree can be severely affected if the soil dries out between irrigations, he said. “Keep them wet so they have no chance to stress because of water.”
Dr. Terence Robinson said close tree spacings are important for early profitability of a block. “If you get production in the second and third year, it tremendously changes the profitability of the orchard.”