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An apple orchard just about ready for harvest in 2016 near Mattawa, Washington. A successful — and profitable — crop often depends on managing crop load and balancing soil nutrients. <b>(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

An apple orchard just about ready for harvest in 2016 near Mattawa, Washington. A successful — and profitable — crop often depends on managing crop load and balancing soil nutrients. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

The No. 1 goal for growers is an obvious one: make a profit. Plenty of factors beyond their control figure into whether they make money — and how much.

That said, the daily decisions that growers make on everything from when to spray to whether to adopt an emerging technology play a significant role in their profit margins.

No one needs to understand that better than new growers still learning the business. As part of an educational program offered by Washington State University Extension for young growers, a trio of experienced Washington growers offered some tips during a dinner in November to avoid growing a no-profit, $8 box of fruit.

Their tips are useful for everyone, and Good Fruit Grower shares them here.

What’s trending

Brent Milne has been growing fruit for 30 years, both on his own and as horticulturist for McDougall and Sons of Wenatchee, Washington.

Said Milne: The reality is that growers can work their butts off and, because of market forces, still end up growing an $8 box of fruit. “The question is: What can you do to position yourself to take full advantage of the marketplace,” he said. “What holds and loses value. That selection is critical.”

Growers today must anticipate trends, which means staying in touch with the people packing and marketing their fruit. What a grower plants must match the packer’s and marketer’s plans — before plants are in the ground.

“It should not be a surprise if a company stops packing a particular cultivar,” he said. “It’s a two-way street, and there has to be good communication there always.”

It also means growers need to be in a position to routinely upgrade their plantings, whether that means a new strain of a particular cultivar or another cultivar or crop altogether.

“Develop the budget that 5 to 10 percent of your acreage should be routinely upgraded. We need to get that mindset going forward,” Milne said.

As part of that process, it’s also important for growers to assess location and soils to line up with the rootstock selection, he said.

Plan ahead, considering planting density, trellis and new technologies, such as a robotic harvester. “Are the systems you’re putting in the ground going to be able to take advantage of those technologies?” he asked.

Crop load management

The horticultural practices employed throughout the year will help to achieve the desired crop.

Growers should prepare to reach their bud count by pruning for it, recognizing that big wood can be pruned out to improve regeneration and set up the crop for the next two to three seasons.

In the springtime, they should be mentally prepared to wage war against overcropping by bloom thinning either by hand or chemically, Milne said.

Observe. Orient. Decide. Act.

These are the steps a grower must take to manage crop load in the orchard, he said.

Growers should evaluate their crop: Are color and size right? Is light penetration even? How balanced are the flavors, volatiles and sugars?

“The speed with which you can go through that process will make all the difference,” he said. “If you’re a person who doesn’t care about those things, you can probably hit 100 to 150 bins to the acre and it won’t matter. But to avoid that $8 per box route, you need to pay attention to all those things so that you’re growing targeted fruit.”

Calcium. Again.

Calcium is one of those key elements that needs to be managed not only with foliar applications, but well in advance in the soil balance.

If Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee plans to replant a block in two or three years, the company will start working more aggressively to balance soil nutrients, including calcium, now, said Dale Goldy, Stemilt horticulturist.

Everyone farms a lot of acres, and no acre is the same.

“We all want uniformity in our orchards, and you don’t get uniform orchards out of uniform practices,” he said. “Assuming every acre is the same and needs the same rate of calcium is not practical. It doesn’t work. You have to create a system where you can variably rate apply to customize the needs of those acres.”

Soil analysis, leaf samples and sound agronomic science are the tricks to achieving soil balance, he said. A variety that has a genetic defect in the amount of calcium it allocates to the fruit — Honeycrisp — requires a significant amount of work to balance nutrient levels. Excess vigor or an unmanaged crop load can knock calcium levels out of balance.

“This whole thing we call orcharding is all about trying to get the biggest part of our blocks to stay in balance with both nutrient and crop load. It’s a constant analysis and balancing act through water management and everything else, to maintain the right calcium levels in the fruit,” he said.

Improving packouts

Lindsey Morrison, field consultant for Columbia Fruit Packers in Wenatchee, Washington, shared some common issues warehouses saw with the fruit during the 2016 harvest:

—Mold. “When it shows up on the fruit, it can go downhill very quickly, as can your packouts,” she said.

—Lenticel decay. Packers saw more of it this year — and in varieties that haven’t had issues in the past. “We’re doing some brainstorming to figure out what it can be attributed to,” she said.

—Splits, especially in more-susceptible Galas. “We’re picking in August and they don’t have the protection with the new systems or the canopy cover they used to have.” That’s also why packers are seeing a lot of sunburn.

—Insect damage and quite a few different kinds of rot also popped up in packing houses. “Harvest timing is critical to everything. If you allow the fruit to become overripe, you increase chance for postharvest issues and reducing your packout,” she said. And a reminder: keep harvested bins out of the sun.

Morrison advised growers to keep a close eye on whether pickers are bruising the fruit or picking too much green fruit, which will affect the packout. She also recommended sending fruit straight to the processor if, for instance, an entire block gets hit by hail or has poor color or really large or small fruit. “It doesn’t have to go through the warehouse. Cut out the middle man,” she said.

And if you are sending to the warehouse, pay attention to their message, Milne said.

“They have a band of opportunity for every apple, every pear, every cherry, a moment when it will make the best profit,” he said. “If you forced the warehouse to fire sale, you’ve just lost ultimate potential for that fruit to earn money.”

Goldy agreed. Growers create, by their own success, a cyclical business model. “It’s one that, when we’re riding the wave up, we just keep doing more if it until we doom it and tip over,” Goldy said.

The world is getting more complex, and to prepare for it, growers need to better anticipate where they’re going to be a week or two weeks out.

“If you’re just waking up in the morning and reacting to what you have on your plate today, you’re never going to get ahead,” he said. •

FOR MORE INFORMATION
This workshop was offered through the Next Generation Tree Fruit Alliance, which offers educational opportunities for young and next generation growers, managers and field staff. For more information on the alliance and to find out about upcoming events, contact Tianna DuPont, Washington State University Tree Fruit Extension, at Tianna.dupont@wsu.edu, 509-663-8181, or Lindsey Morrison of Columbia Fruit at lindsey@columbiafruit.com

– by Shannon Dininny