When Dwayne Bowman transplanted his family from a 1,200-acre grain farm in the Midwest to manage a tree fruit orchard in the Pacific Northwest, it was a leap of faith. The grain farmer knew nothing about managing an orchard or tree fruit production.
“My wife knew more about apples than I did, and that’s only because she was in charge of the few apple trees we had in the backyard,” Bowman said during an interview last fall with Good Fruit Grower.
So, how did a grain farmer end up in the heart of apple country?
“God,” he says.
Bowman and his wife were visiting Zillah, Washington, when a new church was being established in Washington’s Yakima Valley. It was a visit that changed their lives. The new pastor of the church, John Rumble, happened to be an orchard owner who needed someone to manage his 120-acre orchard.
“I didn’t know anything about tree fruit when we came here in 2007,” Bowman said. “But every morning when I woke up, I prayed, ‘Lord, you have to show me what I need to know and learn today.’”
He also credits much of his learning in the first few years to retired Yakima Valley orchardist Don Macy, the original owner of Rumble’s orchard.
Since coming from west central Ohio to Washington, Bowman has transitioned from managing an orchard to owning one, established a crop consulting company, and substantially increased his apple and cherry yields.
In 2009, Bowman bought his own orchard. Sonrise Orchards, near Zillah, totals 160 acres comprising 55 acres in cherries, 10 acres in pears, and the rest in apples. Bowman and his 21-year-old son Josh, who helps manage Sonrise Orchards, also lease some orchard ground from Rumble.
Apple varieties include Honeycrisp, Gala, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Ginger Gold, Fuji, and Red Delicious. Cherry varieties are Bing, Rainier, and Tieton. Bosc pears were in the mix, but are being replaced with a high-density planting of Gala.
As Bowman took over orchard management in June 2007, he quickly learned about alternate bearing. Among the worst in the orchard was a Honeycrisp block that had been grafted in 1998. Yields in the block bounced from 18 bins per acre in 2004 to 27 bins per acre in 2005, 9 in 2006, and 13 in 2007. The block also had a high incidence—over 30 percent—of bitter pit.
The Midwest transplant didn’t know about the intensity of work that would be involved with tree fruit production, but as a certified crop advisor through the American Agronomy Society, he did know soil and plant nutrition. While in Ohio, in addition to farming corn and soybeans, he had a crop consulting business and provided soil and plant nutrition recommendations and products to growers.
Something he immediately noticed after moving west was the greater emphasis placed on nutrition in grain crops than in tree fruits.
“I saw that the soil and tree nutrition field was wide open,” Bowman said, adding that he soon reestablished his crop consulting business.
His son-in-law Trent Graybill helps with the consulting service called Soilcraft. Products they sell are from International Ag Labs, Inc.
Bowman credits the substantial increase in his apple and cherry yields to improved soil fertility, tree nutrition, and management. He pays close attention to micronutrients, which he believes play a critical role in fruit development and quality.
“There’s a reason for every micronutrient in the tree. Some help with pit hardening, some with cell structure. We tune in to each specific nutrient.”
At Sonrise Orchards, soil is sampled annually and plant tissue is analyzed monthly in apples and every two weeks in cherries, said son-in-law Graybill. Soil sample results provide baseline information, while plant tissue numbers are used to guide nutrition during the growing season. Soil amendments include dry fertilizers, compost, and microbial inoculants made through broadcast applications.
Compost tea is also injected through the irrigation system three to four times each growing season.
But the heart of the nutrition program promoted by the consulting service Soilcraft is a foliar feed solution that’s applied twice a week to every other row, says Graybill.
The foliar solution is a specially formulated calcium-phosphate mixture that allows calcium mobility in the plant and includes an Acadian seaweed product.
Calcium is a key micronutrient in fruit, as deficiencies can result in a host of storage problems and disorders. Dextrose is also added to the foliar feed, which serves as a sticker and helps with nutrient uptake. Other micronutrients, like boron, are added as needed during the growing season.
Starting at petal fall, the foliar spray is applied twice a week, spraying every other orchard row, which results in the entire orchard receiving one weekly application. Foliar treatments are applied in low-volume sprays, around 40 gallons per acre, but can be combined with other pest cover sprays.
Bowman does not have replicated trials to compare his fruit production with and without the foliar sprays. Replicated trials would require following fruit through the packing house to gather size and storage data, keeping it separate from other grower lots, and that’s a step he’s unable to do.
However, he had field trials with the same products while in Ohio. Applications are made to the entire block, but he says that yields have significantly increased since he began following the intense nutrition program.
One of his biggest challenges was in the Honeycrisp block. When he began as manager in 2007, the Honeycrisp block, grafted over from a block of Reds on Malling 106 rootstock, was in its sixth year of production.
“The block was alternate bearing, had terrible bitter pit, and yields were low,” he said. After the first year of a focused nutrition program, bitter pit dropped from 30 percent to less than 10 percent and yields increased from 27 bins per acre to 40, according to Bowman.
The following year, he says he overthinned, resulting in yields of only 44 bins per acre. But yields rose to 70 bins per acre in 2010, the same year the program ended.
In another Honeycrisp block, grafted in 2005 and planted to an 8-foot by 15-foot spacing on a V-trellis, yield before the program in 2008 was 5 bins per acre. In 2009, yield was 41 bins; 37 in 2010; 46 in 2011, and 71 in 2012. Fruit peaked in sizes 72 to 88 each year.
Similar yield increases have been achieved in the other apple plantings where trees are 9 feet apart with 16 or 18 feet between rows and were planted in the early 1990s. In Gala, highest yields of 85 bins per acre were achieved in 2012, with fruit sizes peaking on 100. Golden Delicious yields climbed from 40 to 105 bins per acre from 2009 to 2012, with sizes peaking on 72 to 88.
The same type of nutritional program is followed in the cherry blocks. The last two years, his yields in a 50-year-old Bing cherry orchard have averaged between 10 and 11 tons per acre, with fruit size peaking on 10.5 and 11 row.
A few neighboring growers have shown interest in what Bowman is doing, and he has shared his Soilcraft program with a local pomology club.
But for the most part, he encounters skepticism—only a few are following his lead. The intense spraying schedule is a putoff for some, he said, noting that there are also concerns with increased input costs, a factor he says is not an issue when costs are computed on a per-bin basis instead of per acre.
By attending meetings, tours, and other educational events, he’s learned about many new things, such as crop thinning, labor regulations, and food safety audits.
What’s the biggest difference between grain farming and growing tree fruit?
“In the Midwest, you can lose your crop in a couple of months if you don’t have rain,” Bowman answered. “In tree fruit, you can lose your crop in a couple of hours, but there’s no lead time to mentally process or prepare for the loss.” •