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For optimum profits, growers need to maximize their production of target fruit, Noel Adkins, manager of orchard operations with Dovex Fruit Company in Wenatchee, Washington, said during a meeting organized by the North Central Washington Fieldmen’s Association to look at how to increase profitability for apple growers.

First of all, they need to talk to their warehouse managers and marketers to find out what grades and sizes of fruit the warehouse wants and what the target fruit should be. The target for export fruit is likely to differ from fruit destined for the domestic market.

Then, they need to set up the orchard to achieve maximum production of target fruit, Adkins said. He recommends beginning with bud analysis to understand the potential production in each block and of each variety. Pruning should be done with the goal of setting up the trees to produce a predetermined number of fruit. A chemical thinning program will help assure return bloom. Fruit can be hand thinned to the target number of fruit. Summer pruning will expose the fruit to more light and improve the grade. Evaporative cooling and a reflective mulch can also help improve color.

Even with all these efforts, growers will still need to sort the fruit at harvest to eliminate culls, small sizes, and poor grades, and to ensure that the crop meets the target. At harvest, growers should avoid picking apples with splits, which can have a major impact on packouts.

Culls should be left on the tree or on the ground. With harvesting and hauling costs and in warehouse charges and handling charges, the grower could have $90 to $100 a bin invested in culls taken to the warehouse and only receive $10 a bin back. Those losses have to be offset against the fruit that’s saleable.

If an apple is not a cull but not target fruit either, the grower has to judge whether it’s worth putting another $90 to $100 a bin into the fruit and taking it to the warehouse. “Look at historical pricing,” Adkins suggested. “If that number doesn’t contribute significantly to your growing costs, don’t take the risk. Leave it on the tree.”

It might be most economical to make a pass through the orchard before harvest to remove culls, though the fruit will still need to be sorted at harvest, he stressed. With the $90 a bin that growers aren’t losing by sending that fruit to the warehouse, they can afford to pay for sorting.

Field sorting is one of the most important ways to assure a profitable crop, Adkins said. “If you put it in a bin and take it down to the warehouse and call it their problem, they will pack it and sell it, but it may not make you any money. If you have it in the orchard and it doesn’t have a market, don’t put it in the bin.”

The long-term solution, and the one that will have the greatest impact on grade, is to plant new high-coloring strains of a variety, he said.

Horticulturist Fred Valentine complained that color standards today are so high that none of the standard varieties can make the grade. As a result, growers are forced to replant their orchards with the higher-coloring strains at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 per acre.