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A half century ago, when Dwarf Fruit Tree Association took root, very few growers had trees on dwarfing rootstocks, and much mystique surrounded them. Now, dwarfing rootstocks have become standard, and the association is tackling other critical issues facing orchardists around the world.

In the 1920s, horticulturist Dr. Harold B. Tukey, Sr., brought dwarfing Malling rootstocks to Geneva, New York, from England and disseminated them to experiment stations, nurseries, and growers all over America. In 1945, Tukey moved to Michigan State University, where he established research plantings. His students, including Wally Heuser, who graduated in 1950, became enthused about the future of dwarfing apple rootstocks for commercial orchards.

At that time, increasing labor costs and shrinking supplies of skilled orchard workers were making it more costly and difficult to prune, pick, and manage large trees. Also, big trees were not adapted to new technology, including airblast sprayers and concentrated pesticide mixtures.

In about 1955, Heuser planted a block of Red Delicious, Jonathan, and Golden Delicious on Malling 7 at Hilltop Orchards in Hartford, Michigan, and Jerry Mandigo, the Extension horticulture agent for the district, helped with tree training. The two decided that the most pressing need was to explain to growers how to prune and train the young trees.

“None of us had the answers, but we all had ideas,” Heuser recalled during the 1982 annual conference. “A pruning demonstration was called, and a large group turned out.”

The group went into young orchards and pruned trees. Everyone who wanted got a turn. Afterwards, they went into the packing house for lunch and spent the afternoon brainstorming the situation.

“The need for some way of continuing and furthering the interchange of information and ideas was very apparent,” Heuser said.

They decided to hold another meeting the following year so everyone could see what had happened to the pruned trees, and on March 4, 1958, growers from Michigan and several other states packed into a Hilltop storage room and formed the Dwarf Fruit Tree Association with Heuser as president and MSU horticulturist Dr. Bob Carlson as secretary.

The early meetings were held at Hilltop, where two storage rooms were opened up to hold the crowd of between 200 and 300 people. As membership grew, meetings were held in other locations in Michigan, and it became the National Dwarf Fruit Tree Association. In the 1980s, annual conferences were held in other parts of North America.

Heuser became good friends with Bill Luce, an Extension agent in Washington, who was sold on the idea of dwarf trees. “He tried his best to get it going in Washington, but the time wasn’t right yet out there, and it took another 30 years or so to get to where we are today, when Malling 9 and high density orchards are the accepted thing everywhere,” Heuser told the Good Fruit Grower recently.

Luce established the Northwest Dwarf Fruit Tree Association, which was formed in 1959 and closed its books in 1977. Heuser said several factors slowed the adoption of dwarfing rootstocks in the West, including the development of the spur-type Red Delicious tree and the “mold and hold” pruning technique.

The association might not have survived if it had restricted itself too much from a geographic standpoint or kept its focus solely on apple rootstocks, Washington State University horticulturist Dr. Paul Larsen observed in 1981. Carlson brought in international speakers and in 1964 led the first of the association’s many overseas tours. The first four tours were to Europe, where growers were well ahead in adopting dwarfing rootstocks.

Lorne Doud of Indiana, who was president in 1963-1965, attended the first meetings and the early tours. Most fruit growers at the time had never left home much, and the overseas tours were a learning experience for everybody, recalls Doud, now 91. “It was invigorating for everybody that went.”

Dr. Paul Rood, 78, of South Haven, Michigan, said he was excited but skeptical when he attended the first meeting. “I’d seen enough trees on M.9 that were just planted out by themselves, and they looked like runts.”

He was young and just starting out as a fruit grower when the association formed. “I had never been to Europe, and to go to East Malling and see the stocks, and see the denser plantings was impressive.

“It’s been the best source of my higher education,” added Rood, who earned his doctorate from MSU. “It’s been a better education than any university training.”

Blame

All management aspects affecting tree growth, development, and fruiting were part of the programs and tours. Many growers did not realize that dwarfed apple trees planted at high densities needed a different type of care, Larsen observed, and many dwarf-type orchards failed as a result of management failure. However, the rootstock, rather than the management, got the blame.

As membership grew to include most U.S. fruit-growing states and Canada, the association was renamed International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association in 1974.

Washington State University horticulturist Dr. Bruce Barritt, who was appointed education director in 1991, continued to foster the international aspects, as Carlson had done until his retirement as secretary in 1986. As well as having good international connections, Barritt’s research on rootstocks and training systems meshed well with the association’s focus. With the adoption of new varieties, such as Gala, Braeburn, and Fuji in North America in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the need for quicker returns on investment, growers became more interested in learning how to make intensive orchards work. “That was the key period when people started accepting dwarfing rootstocks,” Barritt said.

It was also a period when the number of fruit growers began to shrink significantly, and the IDFTA membership declined to about 700.

As he retired from the IDFTA in 2003, after heading a number of overseas tours, Barritt urged the board to think more internationally, not just in terms of speakers, but in terms of audience, and suggested that the board itself should be international in scope.

“The apple business is a global business,” Barritt said. “There’s only one market—the whole world. There’s only one set of technology—everyone’s got it.”

Barritt thinks many U.S. producers are too provincial and don’t see the global picture well enough. “There are a few that really do, but most don’t. I think the international perspective is very important.”

Smartest thing

Dr. Steve Blizzard joined the organization in 1964 while a research horticulturist at West Virginia University. He was president when the board decided to hold its 2000 annual conference in New Zealand, the first time outside North America, despite concerns—which proved unfounded—that attendance would be low.

“I think it was the smartest thing we have ever done,” said Blizzard, who is now with an orchard management company in California. “It opened us up for more international participation, and also, I think, it brought the apple industry a little closer together. I just think traveling like that is the cheapest form of education and I could not think of a better way to educate our membership than to try to have meetings overseas.”

International meetings allowed more scope for growers and professionals to exchange ideas than the study tours had done, he said. What was unique about IDFTA meetings was that growers and researchers report on their failures as well as successes. “Here was the first time I could go to a meeting where you could talk about your failures, and everybody gained from that,” he said. “It was a new approach.”

Blizzard, who is not small in stature, said he was pleased when the association dropped the word “dwarf” from its name two years ago, putting an end to dwarf jokes. Bennett Saunders, IFTA president, said the board recognized the need for new ideas and programs and felt that as long as it was called IDFTA it would never be more than a dwarf apple tree organization. “We saw the organization evolving into an organization of innovative fruit growers that are continuing to develop ways to make their business more profitable.”

Neal Manly, who will take over as president at the IFTA’s next annual meeting in Tasmania in February, said dwarfing rootstocks are still being explored in the cherry and pear industries, but the association is ready to address the breadth of challenges and concerns that fruit growers face today, including managed varieties and marketing. In 2005, the board appointed its first international members: Garry Langford, general manager of the Australian Pome Fruit Improvement Program Ltd., and Dr. Michael Weber, head of a marketing and horticultural consulting company in Germany.

Collaboration

A hallmark of the organization has been its members’ willingness to share information across international boundaries despite the competitive nature of the fruit business, Manley said, and managed varieties have brought that to the forefront.

“I think there’s value in collaboration. Trying to find a way where you can collaborate and share, but yet at the same time not make yourself obsolete, is a real art. We want to make ourselves stronger, not weaker.”

Today, the association has almost 1,000 members in 40 U.S. states, 5 Canadian provinces, and 26 countries.