The Bin Bandit hauls bins during the harvest season, and a platform sits on it for use in thinning, pruning, and tree training.

The Bin Bandit hauls bins during the harvest season, and a platform sits on it for use in thinning, pruning, and tree training.

A machinery manufacturer came to Lamont Fruit Farm three seasons ago, wanting to ­demonstrate a five-bin pickup system to see how the machine, developed as a harvest aid for vegetables, would perform in an apple orchard.

Rod Farrow saw promise in the Bin Bandit, asked for a platform addition, and bought the final product. “It was easily modified for dual use,” Farrow said. “They put a platform on it, and we get six to eight months’ use from it each year.

“We use it for pruning tops, thinning tops, and putting clips on trees to hook them to the trellis,” he said. During harvest, they remove the platform and use the bin hauler.

Last year, the manufacturer added an automatic steering feature. “It’s pretty simple really,” Farrow said. “The machine is designed to continuously turn to the right. When a sensor arm contacts trees, the machine turns back to straight and begins turning right again.”

The platform is fixed in location; it doesn’t move up or down but can be moved into or away from the trees. Trees are topped at 11 feet, and men working from the ground can reach to seven feet. So the platform is positioned to deal with that top four feet of the trees.

The machine was built by J.J. Dagorret’s Automated Ag Systems, in Tampa, Florida. It is hydraulically self-propelled and four-wheel drive. Farrow hasn’t used it either as a harvest platform or for winter pruning when there’s snow on the ground. “We prune the tops closer to bloom time [after the snow is gone],” he said. “In the winter, we prune from the ground.”

Super spindle

Farrow had a specific plan in mind when he chose the super spindle system, while many other growers in western New York were choosing the tall spindle system—a system Farrow admires as well.

The chief disadvantage of his super spindle system is that it requires so many trees per acre. His plantings are 2,000 trees per acre—two feet apart in rows 11 feet apart. The farm plants all the modern varieties, and all of them on Budagovsky 9 rootstocks.

To reduce tree cost, Farrow teamed up with four nearby growers who are also members of Next Big Thing, the Minnesota-based cooperative formed to produce and market new varieties, the SweeTango being its first. Lamont Fruit Farm operates the nursery that produces 100,000 trees a year and has produced more than 250,000 SweeTango trees in the last three years. Working together with other growers created the critical mass needed to dedicate a full-time nursery supervisor during the ­growing season.

The nursery operation buys rootstocks from Washington and Oregon and lines them out in the spring. A crew of contract budders comes to the nursery in August. Costs are kept low as well by digging trees 18 months or so later, in the spring, and planting them immediately. There is no fall digging and winter storage.

For the super spindle system, whips are wonderful trees to plant, he said. When established, the trees should be tall and slim with no limbs larger than a half-inch diameter, and most of the apples borne on fruiting spurs no more than a foot long. This creates tall, thin fruiting walls ideal for working from a moving platform.

Farrow estimates his cash cost per tree at $2.50, half what he would have to pay a nursery for a similar tree.

The tall spindle system, however, requires a different type of tree. It should be a high-quality, feathered nursery tree with a dozen limbs that will be tied down to trellis wires. Knip trees are preferred.

Farrow believes the super spindle system, with fruit on short wood, will produce more uniform, higher quality fruit with better color than a system that bears fruit on drooping branches. His goal is to produce a very high ­percentage of such target fruit.

Farrow showed his Albion, New York, orchards and the equipment during the International Fruit Tree ­Association summer tour in August.