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Eighth-leaf Jonagold trees on Malling 9 rootstocks in the orchard of Werner Sommerbauer at Puch, Austria. The net provides protection from both hail and sun.

Eighth-leaf Jonagold trees on Malling 9 rootstocks in the orchard of Werner Sommerbauer at Puch, Austria. The net provides protection from both hail and sun.

Central European countries used to produce apples on neglected, inefficient collective farms, but in the two decades since they lost their Communist shackles, the region’s agriculture has been privatized and transformed.

Today, the orchards and fruit-packing houses of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, and Poland rival the most modern in the world. All those countries are now members of the European Union, which provides subsidies towards capital projects.

"I was most impressed with the achievements of the Slovak and Czech Republics, not only in the orchards but in the packing houses," commented Andy Gale, vice president of grower relations at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, who took part in a tour of the region organized by the International Fruit Tree Association this winter.

Over the past five to ten years, the operations that the tour group visited had installed top-line equipment and were supplying the latest types of packaging to the market, Gale noted. They also had food-safety program certification. "The amount of change in these countries was amazing."

Bill Dodd of Amherst, Ohio, said that after hearing about all the things that happened in the central European countries under Communist rule, when many people lost their land and then had to try to get it back again, it’s incredible that they even have an apple industry, let alone one that is so technically advanced. "It’s amazing that they’re where they’re at, because the places we visited are modern."

He observed that European growers don’t seem to prune as hard as North American growers do, but he attributed that to a different customer base. "They don’t require the one-hundred-percent-drop-dead-gorgeous apple that our customers do," he said. "They’re tailoring their growing to their market."

He concluded that the problems that European growers face today are the same as U.S. growers are struggling with: labor, the market, and growing high-quality fruit in enough volume.

Kevin Bittner, with Singer Farms in Appleton, New York, observed that orchards throughout central Europe were very consistent. Most apple orchards used the spindle system with trees spaced about 1 meter (3.3 feet) apart, and had trellising, hail nets, and irrigation systems. "You saw almost no older, wider orchards," he said.

His brother and colleague David Bittner said he was surprised by how small and meticulously kept the orchards were.

Dale Goldy, horticulturist with Stemilt Ag Services, Wenatchee, noted that growers in the Slovak and Czech Republics, which were once suppliers of cheap labor to western Europe, are now hiring workers from further east, such as the Ukraine and Poland. "They turned from a labor exporter to a labor importer."

Carlos Chavez from Chihuahua, Mexico, took an interest in the hail netting in central European orchards. The hail netting commonly used in Mexico is on larger support structures and takes more time to install and put away.

"I think with the system we saw here, we can save some money," he said, noting that the netting can help prevent physiological disorders such as sunburn and sunscald as well as protect fruit from hail.

Neal Manly of Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Washington, was impressed with the amount of hail net being used and with the orchard equipment the group saw, such as over-the-row sprayers in Germany.

"It’s good just to see what can be done," he said. "It’s always nice to challenge your way of thinking on how you do things."

Articles in this issue focus on what the IFTA tour members learned in Austria and Slovakia. Features on fruit production in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland will appear in future issues of the Good Fruit Grower.