The many roles of Dr. Chavez
Carlos Chavez grows half a million nursery trees a year, as a hobby.
Dr. Carlos Chavez is a university professor and a horticultural advisor. He’s a leader of the Mexican tree fruit industry and represents a long list of U.S. nurseries in Mexico.
What does he do in his spare time? He operates his own 130 hectares (320 acres) of orchard and nursery. “This is my hobby,” he said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Chihuahua in 1979, Chavez went to graduate school at Washington State University. He then got a job with Auvil Fruit Company in Orondo, Washington. When he returned to Mexico a couple of years later, he got a part-time position teaching at the University of Chihuahua and worked as a produce buyer. He would travel throughout Mexico and the United States buying fruits and vegetables from growers, and at the same time earned another master’s degree in marketing at the University of Chihuahua and a doctorate in horticulture. He now teaches tree fruit physiology and postharvest physiology at the university.
Chavez began his nursery operation in Guerrero in 1995. Guerrero is at an elevation of over 6,000 feet, close to the western Sierra Madre mountain range. There, he produces two-year-old feathered trees.
A second nursery
Four years later, he established another nursery on the plain near Chihuahua City, at an elevation of 5,200 feet. With a long growing season and an average of 200 frost-free days a year, he can produce whips in one year.
At his nursery near Chihuahua, he lays a drip line and plastic mulch in January. The soil is a sandy clay loam, and the mulch is designed to reduce water evaporation and weed growth. Water for his Chihuahua nursery and nearby orchard comes from two wells, 350 and 450 feet deep.
In February, he begins to import the rootstocks from the United States. In February and March, he plants the rootstocks through the mulch, which comes with precut holes 20 centimeters (8 inches) apart, and then leaves them for about two to three weeks to grow new roots. He starts grafting on the scions in late March, finishing the job by the end of April. He prefers to graft in the field rather than bench graft. Bench grafting involves more handling of the grafts, which can damage them, and the people doing the grafting charge about the same, whether the grafts are done in the field or the warehouse, he said. He pays piece rate for grafting, and this season’s rate was 11 cents per graft. A good grafter can graft 1,500 rootstocks in an 8-hour day.
Nutrients, such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium, are applied to the trees through fertigation.
The trees are defoliated in late November. The plastic mulch is removed before the trees are harvested in January. The trees are shipped directly to the grower for planting.
Chavez moves his nursery to new soil every year. The pH level of the soils in the region tends to be high—in the 7.2 to 7.4 range—so he uses gypsum (calcium sulfate) to adjust the pH.
He produces about a half million nursery trees annually, all for growers in Chihuahua. They sell for U.S.$4 on average, depending on the variety and the market. He produces mainly apple, pecan, and stone fruits. When he doesn’t have the variety or rootstock a grower wants, he imports trees from the U.S. nurseries he represents.
About 90 percent of his trees are grown under contract with the grower, and this year about 60 to 75 percent of the trees are Golden Delicious (Gibson and Mullins cultivars, and a low-chill strain discovered in Mexico). The rest are mainly Red Delicious and Gala. He collects bud wood from his orchard or from growers’ own trees during the pruning season and keeps it in cold storage for two to three months before grafting to complete the chilling requirement.
Chavez said a small group of very innovative growers are moving rapidly to high density systems, using dwarfing rootstocks, but about 90 percent of the growers still use traditional rootstocks, such as Malling 111, M.106, and M.7.
The Chihuahua nursery and orchard are in an area that is primarily a pecan growing region, so he has few problems with apple or stone fruit pests. In the nursery, the main problem is weeds, particularly Johnson grass and pigweed.
When he started the nursery in 1999, he leased the land. Alongside the nursery, he planted a couple of rows of peaches and one of apples at orchard planting distances. He included 52 varieties of peaches, just to see how they would grow. He used no frost control or Dormex for chilling compensation.
“I saw many of the peaches were growing well, and some of the apples, so I decided to buy some land and plant an orchard,” he explained.
The 120-acre orchard was established in 2003, on land previously used to produce corn and beans. The soil has a relatively high percentage of organic matter, at close to 1.0 percent, compared with 0.5 percent in most other orchards in the region. He attributes that to the debris from previous crops, but added 5 kilos (11 pounds) of compost per tree last year.
He’s planted more trees each year since. Most of the apples are Golden Delicious and Gala, with a smaller amount of Oregon Spur Red Delicious. He has a fourth-leaf planting of the late-maturing peach Carnival on an open-centered perpendicular V system, as well as two-year-old Babygold 5 and Babygold 8 peach trees trained to a Spanish bush. The trees are 2.5 meters apart (8.2 feet) and will be maintained at 2.5 meters high.
Chavez and a group of Mexican growers recently visited peach orchards in Spain, where orchardists are using the Spanish bush system and picking 80 to 120 bins of fruit per acre. However, in his orchard, the Babygold trees have small leaves and a lack of growth, which he attributes to lack of winter chilling.
The peaches are sold in the Chihuahua City terminal market on a daily basis. Chavez said clingstone peaches sell at higher prices than freestone. He sells all his fruit in Mexico and said consumers prefer yellow clingstone peaches with a slight blush. Fruit size is less important than quality. He applies five to six calcium sprays during the season to both peaches and apples, starting the first week of June and continuing every two weeks until harvest.
Chavez said the combination of nursery and orchard tasks keeps his crew of 50 workers busy year round. In May, after they finish grafting the rootstocks, they move to the orchard to thin apples and peaches and work on weed control. In July, they start picking peaches, in August they move to Galas, and by mid-September they are finished with apple harvest. They then harvest late peaches. From November until December, the workers prune in the orchard before returning to the nursery in January to harvest trees.
Workers are paid between U.S.$65 and $180 per week, depending on the type of work and level of responsibility, he said.