The economic challenges in the apple industry this year underline the importance of keeping orchards updated so they’re producing the type and quality of product the market wants, says Tom Auvil, research horticulturist with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.
“You need to have a business plan that includes renovating the production system either by replanting or grafting over varieties,” he said during winter horticultural meetings in Washington.
If growers are acquiring orchards or expanding acreage, they still need to replace varieties that are losing their market status, he said.
“Just because we buy a new piece of ground, it doesn’t mean that the varieties are any better than we’re currently growing,” says Tom Auvil. “Make sure we’re truly advancing the quality of the product we take to market.”
Prices of most varieties of Washington apples have been depressed this season because of several factors, including a record crop and an extended slow-down at West Coast ports that limited exports.
Golden Delicious seems to be going through a steep decline, Auvil noted, and Red Delicious and Rome apples have been averaging well below break-even prices so far this season. Cameo, Braeburn, and Jonagold have also been under price stress.
However, some varieties have fared better.
Managed varieties, such as Ambrosia, Jazz, Pinova, and Sonya, have averaged $30 or more a box f.o.b. so far this season. Honeycrisp has brought in the highest returns at close to $50 a box. Really-red Gala and Fuji are also doing well.
Auvil said there are several benchmarks that growers should aim for. An established orchard that is averaging $20 a box for the fruit, or a gross revenue of $10,000 per acre, is in a fairly stable situation.
“But this year, when we’re looking at $15 f.o.b.s and 15 packs per bin, that revenue is going to drop to $5,000 or less,” he said. “We need to have realistic expectations of the revenue flow that’s going to cover our ever-increasing cost of doing business.”
Auvil said returns on the newer varieties, such as SweeTango, Envy, and Opal, are high enough to cover not just the cost of production but establishment costs also.
Another benchmark that’s important is the volume of production.
When replanting an orchard, it’s important to fumigate the ground in order to reach the full yield potential. Replant disease stunts the feeder roots of trees, restricting uptake of water and nutrients and producing symptoms similar to drought stress. Trees planted on traditional rootstocks in untreated old soil won’t develop the bearing surface to produce more than 20 bins per acre, he warned.
The cost of fumigation can be more than recouped in the first crop, he said, expressing surprise that some orchards are still being replanted without fumigation.
Geneva rootstocks that are tolerant of replant disease provide a longer-term solution to the problem than fumigation (Read “Rootstocks under trial.”). Geneva rootstocks come in a range of sizes, but production systems and horticultural practices can make more of a difference, in terms of productivity, than whether the rootstock is dwarfing or semi-dwarfing, Auvil said.
The closer trees are planted together, the less each tree will have to grow to fill the space. “There’s a big difference between three and five feet in the row and the ability to get the tree to grow tall,” he said.
Cropping too soon or too heavily in a replant site can be a problem, because it stops tree growth and limits development of the canopy and potential yields, he warned.
When horticulturists suggested several years ago that growers should aim to produce 70 bins per acre, they were roundly criticized, Auvil recalled.
“The industry was happy with 45 to 50 bins per acre, but today we have some producers who are budgeting for 100 bins per acre and think 70 is on the slim side of production.” •