Finding profit in diversity
Sweet cherries and soft fruit have replaced apple acreage at New York’s Singer Farms.
President prunes do well on the sandy soils of Singer Farms in Appleton, New York. Photos by Melissa Hansen
Jim Bittner has more options than most New York tree fruit growers. Singer Farms, located on the shores of Lake Ontario, can successfully grow a diversity of fruit, including sweet and tart cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, and apples.
“My location and soils give me opportunities that others don’t have,” said Bittner, who is partner with Tom Singer in running Singer Farms in Appleton. The soils there are well drained, and the climate is favorable to stone and pome fruit production.
But being diversified is not without challenges. It takes additional management skills to oversee different crops and to juggle various tasks—some that need to be done at the same time. Cherry trees need to be pruned in April in the same time frame that peach trees need pruning,
“You can’t be diversified if you don’t do a good job,” Bittner said. “You’ve got to be good at it and have markets for all the varieties.”
Bittner is a first-generation farmer, originally coming from the dairy and field crop side of agriculture. “Because I haven’t had the experience, I will try things that others won’t. But if it’s not making money, I don’t hesitate to cut it down.”
He started his tree fruit career in 1987, planting apple trees every year until 1999—and hasn’t planted an apple tree since. Apple acreage at Singer Farms has been reduced from a high of 280 acres to about 200 acres today. Varieties that were losers were cut down. He does not foresee them planting any apples in the near future because he believes the financial investment is too risky.
Planting decisions are based on economics. Bittner has no qualms cutting blocks out of the orchard if the variety is no longer profitable. In fact, there are several “holes” in a 50-acre block where Rome apples came out because he “can’t afford losers.” While blank spots in the orchard do not produce income, he said at least he is not losing money on them.
He works closely with his packer to stay on top of consumer preferences and market changes.
Singer Farms expanded acreage in recent years, planting more processed peaches and other stone fruits. The 600-acre farm now includes 200 acres of apples, 100 acres of cling peaches, 40 acres of sweet cherries, 80 acres of tart cherries, 40 acres of processed cherries, 25 acres of Bartlett pears, and 25 acres of organic apples. The remaining acreage is planted to fresh-market varieties of peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, and a small amount of quince, gooseberries, Asian pears, and currants.
Singer Farms owns Empire Nursery, which gives them license to have access to Gisela rootstock and obtain varieties they want. Some of their newer cherry variety plantings are Sweetheart, Rainier, Ulster, Kristin, White Gold, and Blushing Gold.
While he admits that he can’t grow the larger-sized cherries like Washington and California producers, he said he can compete with West Coast cherry growers on yields. “But then, I’m not competing against Washington’s best,” he said, explaining that Washington’s best is usually exported.
His major strength is that he’s only hours away from some of the nation’s most populated cities and states.
Bittner has planted cherries on Gisela rootstock since 1991, primarily G.6 and G.12. Growing cherries on dwarfing rootstock means that the trees must be irrigated, he said. “Irrigation is not an option for Gisela even though New York growers don’t irrigate.”
If growers cannot irrigate, they shouldn’t bother growing Gisela trees, he notes. “You can’t afford to wait for a week for the rain to come or you’ll never catch up.”
Singer Farms is within the city limits of Appleton, which allows the farm to use municipal water for irrigation. Bittner uses drip irrigation on their dwarfing cherry trees and some early peaches and apricots. Water charges are $1.20 per 1,000 gallons; however, the town system is pressurized, which means that powerful pumps or elaborate filtration systems are not needed.
Ten acres of cherries are designated for the U-pick market. All U-pick cherries are on G.6 rootstock to provide a pedestrian-style orchard. For insurance liability purposes, U-pick customers do not use ladders.
“We send the U-pick customers into the orchards that have smaller fruit, are a little overripe—stuff that I don’t have any use for,” he noted. Gibberellic acid is sprayed on the trees to help with timing to stretch the U-pick harvest to about three weeks.
The U-pick operation has done surprisingly well, Bittner said, adding that they sell the cherries for $1.50 per pound. About half of the 2,000-plus customers that pick cherries are tourists traveling through the area.
Peaches are grown on Lovell and Bailey rootstocks, planted 6 feet apart in 18-foot-wide rows, in a perpendicular V system. Fruit is harvested by picking from the ground without ladders. He keeps tree height down to eliminate ladders, sacrificing some yield for the pedestrian orchard.
“California has almost double the peach yields,” Bittner said, adding that Singer Farms usually produces about a million pounds of processed peaches annually that are delivered to processors about 30 miles away. “But the disadvantage is that they [California producers] are a long way from the East Coast. That’s what we’re living on—the freight.”
He plants new stone fruit varieties in a 20-acre test plot to learn if they are suitable for his climate and soil. Most of the apricot varieties come from the Canadian breeding program in Ontario, such as Hargrand and Harval, while prune and plum varieties come from around the world. He has had good luck with Green Gage plums, a French variety that has very high sugar, though Pluots have not grown well due to pollination problems.
He tried growing varieties of stone fruit from Sun World’s breeding program, which is headquartered in California, but his location doesn’t have enough heat units for the sun-loving varieties.
Proximity to Lake Ontario helps to moderate temperatures in the winter and at crucial bloom time in the spring. Frost protection is not needed.
There is a down side to being located near the lake. “We don’t get help with the heat or get the heat units,” he explained. If orchards are located too close to the lake, fog can interfere with getting needed heat.
Most of the fresh-market soft fruit produced at Singer Farms is delivered to farmers’ markets in New England states, with many small, one-ton loads. Some fruit goes as far as Ohio. “We deliver orchard-run fruit that’s not sorted. But we do well.”
Singer Farms apples, however, are packed at a local packing house and sold commercially.