Malling 7 rootstocks and a V-trellis system seem to work best for Fuji and Gala apples at Britton VanKonynenburg Farms.
Though many California orchardists have removed their Fuji trees because of poorly colored apples, a two-family farm partnership in Modesto has found a way to produce quality fruit by using better-colored strains and evaporative cooling.
Chris Britton and Paul VanKonynenburg joined their fathers, John Britton and Derk VanKonynenburg, about 15 years ago. Their fathers were already partners in Britton VanKonynenburg Farms, a farming operation with 1,500 acres of peaches, apples, almonds, walnuts, grapes, and more recently, cherries. Apples were first planted in 1977, with cherries initially planted in 1997. A year ago, in nearby Salida, they planted 100 more acres of cherries.
Through the years, after trying apple training systems from other areas, they’ve learned what works best for Fuji and Gala apples on their turf: Malling 7 rootstock, with second- or third-generation variety strains. Trees are spaced at 6 feet apart with 15 feet between rows, and are trained to a V trellis, with four to five leaders on the wire. Trees are in production by the third year, and by the fourth, the Fujis produce about 45 bins per acre, with packout peaking on sizes 88 and 80.
But more importantly, apples grown under this system mature early. "In California, early is really, really important," said Chris, adding that they are trying to get in and out of the market before Washington begins.
Chris said although they initially planted apples to the vertical trellis, newer plantings have been on the V-trellis, a system more in tune with the tree’s natural growth habits. "Before, we were forcing the tree to do unnatural things by tying limbs down," he said. And they were constantly retraining workers how to prune the trees because they didn’t always have the same workers day after day. "Also, the vertical trellis doesn’t lend itself to higher yields," he said.
Fuji strains that have done well for them include Beni Shogun, Top Export, Myra, and September Wonder. Gala strains they have planted include Buckeye, Crimson, Galaxy, Ultra Red, and Pacific. With overhead evaporative cooling on all of their bicolored apples, they are able
to pick at 65 to 75 percent solid red color, though with Buckeye Gala, they can achieve 100 percent color.
By using several applications of Raynox in June and July, they are able to postpone turning on water for evaporative cooling by five weeks, saving on pumping and water costs. Raynox is a protective material developed by Washington State University’s Dr. Larry Schrader. Fruit cracking can also be an issue, which is another reason they try to minimize the amount of overhead water applied.
They also have some freestanding Granny Smith apples and an 18-acre block of Pink Lady. They had more Pink Lady but pulled the trees just as they were starting to figure out how to grow and market the apples, he added.
In Gala, they do a lot of postharvest pruning to help control vigor, though some preharvest work is done to improve light interception, cut out water sprouts, and make it easier for harvest.
Fruit is harvested in four picks for Gala, and three for Fuji. Workers are paid by the hour. They tried piece wage rates, but found that packout and fruit quality suffered. Labor efficiency has decreased in recent years, with the average worker only picking 2.5 bins per day now compared with 3.5 to 4.0 a few years ago, Chris said. "But that’s the reality of the work environment that we live in today."
This year, they plan to purchase platform equipment as a way to improve labor efficiency.
Chris said their apple packer, PrimaFrutta in Linden, encouraged them to plant cherries in 1997. "Initially, we were going to plant everything to apples. The cherries have turned out to be one of our most profitable blocks—some in our group have said that we should have planted the whole orchard to cherries."
In the initial block, they planted Bing, Rainier, and Coral Champagne on Mazzard rootstock, Brooks on Colt rootstock, and Tulare on Mahaleb. The varieties are interplanted in the block by rows to act as pollinizers for each other. In a newer block planted last winter, Colt was used as the rootstock for Coral Champagne, Garnet, and Rainier.
"For us, we would never plant another Bing," he said. "Our niche is being early. The southern San Joaquin Valley gets going first, and there are a lot of Bings to the north of us. We fill the break in between the south and north when there’s a void in the pipeline. It’s been kind of dumb luck for us."
They have found Colt rootstock to be hardier than other cherry rootstocks they’ve used. There’s been no dieback or problems with fruit size. "Mahaleb has a lot of issues. It’s been the worst rootstock for us," he added. They haven’t tested any dwarfing Gisela rootstocks, but are depending on their neighbors in northern California to evaluate them.
Coral Champagne, a variety developed by the University of California, Davis, has done well in their setting, ripening around May 20. Chris said the fruit has big shoulders, great firmness, crunchy eating, and it seems more rain tolerant than other varieties, like Brooks. Production is shipped to domestic retailers.
When rain threatens the cherries, they first apply the spreader Nu-Film, and then begin spraying calcium chloride as soon as it stops raining. Senior partner Derk added that the first year they had rain, they were inexperienced and didn’t know any better. "Our neighbors gave up and stopped spraying, but we didn’t. The secret is to not give up. We sprayed eight times in three days, but were able to salvage the crop."
Cherry pickers are paid piece rate, with the average worker picking 12 to 14 tubs (33 pounds) per day. Last year was an exceptional year for yield in their cherries. Workers averaged 20 to 25 tubs per day during harvest, and cherry yields ranged from 8.5 tons per acre in Brooks to 11 tons per acre in the Bing and Coral blocks.