Growers foresee change
Improving labor efficiency will continue to be a focus.
There are too many new apple varieties, says Polish orchardist Krzysztof Hermanowicz.
New market niches, more emphasis on eating quality, technological advances in the orchard, more regional focus on food, and closer relationships with retailers are changes that a handful of tree fruit growers across the globe envision in the next decade.
Trever Meachum of High Fruit Farms, Hartford, Michigan, sees fewer young farmers coming back to the tree fruit industry to be what is thought of as a commercial grower—one that produces a few types of tree fruit, delivers fruit to a packing house, and has the packing house or another entity market the fruit. "More growers will look outside the box for different opportunities to market their products in the next decade, finding niche markets instead of just dropping off fruit at the packing house," he said.
Young growers in his area are more interested in diversifying their farms and growing a combination of crops, Meachum said. They are attracting consumers through various channels, such as direct farm markets, local food movements, regional farmer's markets, agri-tourism, cider mills, and bakeries. "They're finding other ways to market their crop than traditional wholesale markets."
He also thinks that growers, especially those in southwest Michigan, will work closer together in the next ten years, banding together as cooperative groups to more cost-effectively share things like trucking, labor pools, infrastructure (equipment), as well as purchase supplies as a group. "Instead of one farmer buying five widgets, a group will make an order of 100 widgets and receive a price discount," he said.
Growers should be prepared in the next decade to do more of their own "on-farm" research for new pesticides and equipment. "We're losing the Extension Service and university research programs due to budget cuts," he said, adding that research like spray demonstration plots are no longer funded, shifting applied research trials to the grower. "There's less time between when a product has been tested and when it's commercially released. It seems that within 30 days of registering a new pesticide, the registrant is selling it and wants it in growers' spray tanks, and growers have to hope that it works."
Dennis Courtier, owner of Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City, Minnesota, expects that within the next decade the cost of fuel will become a major concern once more. Higher fuel prices and transportation costs will make apple production in the far extremes of the country less sustainable, he believes.
"We're either at or very near the point where we have maximum oil extraction. As that oil extraction lessens and demand increases, a lot of things will change."
He expects that national brands will be produced regionally, rather than shipped across the country. Production areas will serve regional consumers. That's the philosophy behind the cooperative Next Big Thing, which he helped found to commercialize new varieties, including the SweeTango from the University of Minnesota's breeding program. NBT is working with producers in the various growing regions of North America to coordinate regionalized production of a centralized brand.
Chris Britton of Britton Konynenburg Partners, Inc., in Modesto, California, thinks that growers will see a greater importance placed on eating quality in the next decade. "The importance of eating experience and eating quality will continue to grow," he said. "We, as orchardists, must provide good-tasting, high-quality products if we want to grow the market and increase consumption."
California tree fruit growers, particularly those with stone fruit, in the next ten years need to improve yields, packouts, and grow good-tasting, quality fruit if they want to be in business, he said. Britton, who is part of a two-family partnership that grows apples, cherries, peaches, and apricots in California's San Joaquin Valley, said that stone fruit growers have lost credibility with the consumer because of inconsistent flavor and quality. "We need to rebuild that trust by growing varieties that have high Brix, are picked at the right time, and have the legs to survive handling and transportation."
Another significant change he sees coming to the tree fruit industry is technology, especially in the area of harvesting. "Even in processing orchards, we are moving towards orchard systems and technology that will reduce labor," he said. An example is their effort to convert freestanding cling peach blocks into trellis systems that allow for use of platforms, and, in the future, mechanized harvesters. "Even without mechanization, the trellis systems make sense in the processing orchards. Just eliminating the need and cost of propping makes the trellis system pencil out in 15 years."
Sagemoor Farms manager Kent Waliser, Pasco, Washington, is hopeful he will see technological advances that make labor more productive, using equipment and technology from industries not related to agriculture. "As growers, we tend to get in a myopic rut. It's hard to sit back and see what the possibilities are that aren't related to what we do now. But my hope is that some new things come to fruition."
Progressive and forward-thinking growers will continue to plant orchards trained to systems adaptable to technological advances, though those advances will happen gradually. "There's not enough acreage in the ground right now to support large-scale technological change," he said, musing that ten years, in some ways, is a very short time frame.
"I hope that new cherry varieties will be developed offering changes to that industry," Waliser said. "We need to come up with a system to make labor more productive in the cherry orchard where half of the production costs come during harvest. We're still picking fruit from large trees." At the warehouse, he hopes to see improved technology in handling cherries eliminate some of the hand sorting of millions of little fruit.
Waliser also hopes to see further advances in mobile technology, bringing information and data to the field. "Just look at how far we've come in what we can access on the iPhone today compared to ten years ago. Could you imagine taking a laptop with an air card out to the orchard to access a database located elsewhere ten years ago?" The democratization of technology—getting information into more hands—should be even more feasible and economical in the near future, he said.
Krzysztof Hermanowicz, apple grower and packer in Poland, does not predict any significant changes in technology or varieties coming to his country in the next decade. While he doesn't consider himself a pessimist, he doesn't see better times coming for the tree fruit industry. "The best time is over, and it only could be difficult in the future."
He believes there are too many varieties being introduced at the moment. "It will be difficult for anyone to achieve spectacular success," Hermanowicz said in an e-mail to Good Fruit Grower. "An apple is an apple, but only producing the best apples, best varieties, most economically, can assure fruit growers a place on the market."
European growers, packers, and marketers must work more closely with supermarkets in the future and find a way to foster cooperation, he said. "Supermarkets are becoming more and more important to the market."
But the tree fruit future in Poland is not all bleak. Three of his children will be taking over the family orchard and business in the next decade, a succession that Hermanowicz is proud of and which speaks to the future of Poland's fruit industry.