Making the switch to fresh
Chip and Karla Bailey are changing their processed-apple orchards into ones that yield fresh market quality.
It's not enough these days for tree fruit orchards to be productive. To remain competitive, they must also provide the highest quality at the lowest cost, a principle that applies to fruit grown for both the fresh and processed markets.
Charles "Chip" Bailey is a transition grower, one who is making the switch from processed to fresh market apples. He is also a first-generation farmer, purchasing his first orchard in 1984, the same year he graduated from Cornell University. He bought a second farm in 1987. Though he grew up in apple country, his parents were not involved with agriculture-so he had no inheritance to give him a start with equipment or land.
His orchards are located in the heart of New York's processed tree fruit production in Williamson. One of the few remaining processors in the state, Duffy Mott, maker of Mott's products, is a few miles away.
When Bailey and his wife, Karla, an integral part of the farm management team, bought the orchards, they looked like "overgrown processing farms," he said. Fortunately, some blocks were planted to semidwarfing rootstocks.
The Baileys have spent the last 20 years changing the processed orchards into ones that would yield high quality fruit for the fresh market cost-effectively. They wasted no time to begin the transformation, replanting their first fresh market orchard in 1985 and using horticultural practices to change marketable blocks of processed apples into fruit suitable for the fresh market.
"The plan was to convert the orchard to fresh production as fast as possible," Bailey said, adding that they targeted five acres each year to replant and used the palmette training system to open up tree canopies and improve light distribution.
Twenty years ago, the market for fresh apples was less demanding than today, Bailey noted. Color was more important then, with less emphasis placed on size.
In less than two decades, they have moved their 150 acres-that originally went all to processing-to a split now of 70 percent fresh market, 30 percent processed. The value of the crop is equally represented between the two markets, with half coming from processed and half from the fresh market.
When he started, Bailey had little experience growing for the fresh market. His work experience during high school and college was at processed apple orchards. He credits the orchard management classes he took at Cornell from Dr. Warren Stiles and working in the university's high density orchards for steering him towards the fresh market.
"My experience at Cornell gave me more of a vision," he said, adding that the class toured different regions of tree fruit production to gain knowledge. "Before, my world was Wayne County, which is all processing. But after Cornell, I had the educational experience and practical knowledge."
Bailey has tried several different systems in the orchard, from a vertical axis on 4-by 12-foot spacing, to a modified super spindle system with trees three feet apart, to a double-row planting with trees on interstems.
Recent blocks that he's planted include the varieties Gala, Cameo, and Linda Mac on Malling 9 (Nic 29) rootstocks. He is switching to using a four-wire trellis in new plantings with wooden posts instead of conduit, because of the high cost of metal. He grows his trees to be about 12.5 feet tall, striving to keep a ratio of 1 to 1.5 tree height to row width. He uses feathered trees when planting new blocks, as he wants to get the young trees into production as soon as possible.
In some years, apples in his remaining processing blocks are selectively picked for the fresh market and then stripped for processing.
The orchard purchase came with housing built in the mid-1960s. Bailey upgraded the building with new windows and siding, connected it to the municipal water and sewer system, and houses his harvest crew of about 20 in the unit.
Though most New York orchardists rely on rainfall for soil moisture, Bailey can tap into the municipal water system and drip irrigate new plantings if necessary. He can move drip lines to new blocks getting established.
"When planting a dwarf tree, you need irrigation to push the tree, fill in the row, and help it be productive," he said. "I don't want the trees to be stressed. It's not just the crop this year, but also next year's crop that is impacted."
Town water is more expensive, and he pays $2.25 per 1,000 gallons, but he doesn't need a high-powered pump or elaborate filter system for delivery. He also knows that with town water, he won't run dry in the middle of the season. In some years, there's been no need to turn on the drip irrigation lines.
Bailey believes that to survive in the long run, growers need to "innovate, cooperate, and collaborate."
By networking with other growers locally and throughout the world, diverse ideas can be shared and new techniques learned. "Some of the ideas are in Wenatchee, Washington; some are in Bolzano, Italy. But there are things we can learn from each other."