Plant orchards that can accommodate technology of the future. That’s been the tree fruit industry’s mantra in recent years, but the late Jerry Haak, who spoke during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting, said he no longer subscribed to that philosophy because increasing production—and therefore revenues—was more important than reducing costs.
“Five years ago, I was on the side that said, I’ll plant my orchard around the technology to make the technology work,” he said. “But I don’t say that any more. I think production has to trump the technology.”
|Listen to a recording of the discussion on “Adopting new technologies—the decision-making process” between panelists Don Armock of Sparta, Michigan; John Verbrugge of Yakima, Washington; and the late Jerry Haak of Outlook, Washington, at the 2013 Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Wenatchee, Washington. Jim Doornink of Yakima was the moderator.|
Haak, a grower at Outlook, Washington, who died suddenly a couple of weeks after the meeting, had joined two other growers—John Verbrugge of Yakima, Washington, and Don Armock of Riveridge Produce Marketing, Inc., in Sparta, Michigan—to discuss the decision-making process behind adopting new technologies.
Haak said that increasing production from, say, 70 bins per acre to 110 bins, would generate far more returns to the grower than technology could save in costs.
This philosophy is not new. Haak recalled advice that apple-growing legend Grady Auvil gave him when he was starting out as a grower. Don’t worry about how much it costs, just worry about growing the trees and filling the space as fast as you can, Auvil told him. If you need to implement technology to make the trees grow, do it. Cost is not a factor.
Along the same lines, another of Haak’s mentors, Fred Plath at Washington Fruit & Produce Company, told him: “Production will cover a lot of mistakes. Always be in the top 10 percent of the pool and you will never have to worry about anything.” “If you implement those two concepts, you’ll be a successful fruit farmer,”
Haak told growers at the meeting, adding that any new technology that he adopted would have to work in his system, which was producing over 100 bins per acre.
Haak had used platforms for orchard work but had backed off. Several years ago, he would have his employees prune the tops of the trees from the platform, with the rest done from the ground.
“As we went from 75 to 100 bins per acre, we realized we had to change our pruning,” he said. “We had to be a lot more accurate, to the point where we’re counting buds per leader and we have targets for each block on how many buds per tree we want.”
In the late 1980s, Haak tried blossom thinning to improve the size of naturally small varieties, such as Gala, but it never worked.
He would go to Auvil Fruit Company’s Vantage ranch, where they seemed to be consistently successful with blossom thinning.
“I came to the conclusion that it was the site,” he said. Later, he realized it was because of how the trees were pruned.
“Once you prune to the detail that Auvil is—and I’m doing now—and then you blossom thin consistently, you can grow big apples anywhere,” he said.
Haak learned that pruning was the practice that had the greatest influence on return bloom and annual production.
However, when workers were on a platform travelling at a set speed, it was difficult for them to prune uniformly and to the required level of detail to reach production levels of 100 bins per acre. So he had his workers get out the ladders again.
He calculated that with a tree density of 1,400 per acre, each tree needed to have 140 to 160 buds. Before pruning, a tree typically had 500 to 600 buds. His pruning cost per acre went up, but the pruning cost per bin went down because of higher yields.
He used platforms for tree training and thinning older varieties on V-shaped trellises, but his platform use had dropped by 75 percent, he estimated.
A place where Haak has been able to both improve productivity and lower costs was harvest. In blocks where pickers would be harvesting less than 30 bins per acre (for example, when selective picking), he found it more efficient to use a bin trailer that moved with the workers rather than to lay out empty bins in the orchard ahead of time.
Pickers worked in pods of five, with one assigned to drive the tractor and transport bins to and from the loading area as well as pick. With Haak’s orchard system and a crop of 25 bins per acre, the pickers would have to walk 150 feet to empty their bags into the bin.
Moving the bin with them as they picked increased their productivity by 40 percent, even though they were still using ladders. When harvesting Honeycrisp, his pickers could earn $175 to $200 per day, compared with only $120 a day when empty bins were laid out in the orchard.
“Their efficiency has gone up, they’re making more money, and my cost is actually lower,” Haak said. “That does tell you that having the machine move with the people is a good thing.”
Another way he improved harvest efficiency was by having the first wire of the trellis chest high, so that pickers can move easily across rows, instead of crawling under a lower wire.
Haak tried to provide workers with full-time jobs for as much of the year as possible to ensure he has had enough people at harvest.
At each of his locations, he planted enough varieties of apples, pears, and cherries that he could hire a crew early in the spring and employ them until the last apple was picked in November. Instead of hiring and firing as the season progressed, he found jobs for them to do.
“The employee likes that, and you’re able to train your workforce much better,” he said. “I think I have a competitive advantage compared to other orchards around that don’t have that situation set up,” he said. “I have a pretty stable workforce.”
High-producing orchards are also attractive to workers.
“You have to create your system so that the people will want to work there,” he said. “When you’re picking a hundred bins per acre, it’s not difficult to have a lot of people come to your place to work, even if your piece rate per unit is less than a neighbor who’s picking the same variety but on a 12- by 18- or 20- by 20-spacing.”
Pickers expect to earn a certain amount per day, so it’s up the farmer to figure out how many units it takes to get to that level, he said. It’s much easier to reach that level in a highly productive orchard, where pickers don’t have to climb tall ladders.
Verbrugge, owner of Valley Fruit Orchards, said that with more and more orchards generating yields of 80 to 100 bins per acre, the need for pickers is increasing, and so is competition among growers. Even though an orchardist might be able to offer employment from spring through mid-November, workers often respond to the lure of better pay elsewhere.
It’s particularly difficult to attract workers to orchards that are not visible from roads. Verbrugge recruits workers through the H-2A federal guest-worker program rather than leave it to chance. He thinks mechanical harvesting tools need to be considered, too.
“It’s silly that we invest $20,000 to $30,000 an acre and wait for a sign on the side of the road to finish off what we’ve invested in,” he said. “You’ve got to get that fruit picked on time, so it’s important to have the people.”
Armock, president of Riveridge Produce Marketing, said growers need to make sure they’re the employer of choice and meet the employees’ goals as well as their own.
For example, many growers pay an end-of-season bonus, but Armock said there are other things they can do that don’t cost a lot, like understanding and respecting the workers’ culture and being considerate. •
Four points to keep in mind
Jerry Haak offered the following advice for growers who want their orchards to be both efficient and productive.
1 The bottom line is production. If the technology does not help increase production, it’s not useful.
2 Don’t change your process to fit the technology; use technology that fits the operational procedures already in place.
3 Don’t be quick to implement something that promises to make things “easier” or “more efficient” for you. Certain aspects of the process are hard for a reason, and this “easier” process comes with its own set of complications. It likely requires the development of different skills or processes that will be time-consuming to learn.
4 Employers will have a hard time finding and retaining skilled labor if they fail to recognize the importance of having a supportive work environment. Haak had a very dedicated team of employees who had worked for him for many years, which was extremely rare in the tree fruit industry. He credited this to the relationships management developed with the employees. They enjoyed working there because they felt appreciated and important.