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New York State’s tree fruit industry, with its volume and history tied to processing, is in transition, moving more toward the fresh market every year. The shift is occurring through a sharp focus on market niches, modernized packing and storage facilities, and improved fruit quality.

In the last five years, the percentage of New York apples sent to the fresh market has gradually crept upward, moving from 46 percent fresh in 2000 to 52 percent fresh in 2004, when the state produced a record 30-million-bushel crop.

“We are obviously transitioning to more fresh,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. “But it certainly depends on the year, growing conditions, and quality of the fruit, and the size of the crop.”

The apple association administers the New York State Apple Marketing Order, which producers recently overwhelmingly reauthorized for another eight years. Funds are collected from all apple growers to support promotion of both fresh and processed apples.

Historically, a majority of New York’s crop went to processors for juice, peelers, or frozen products. Fresh market apples were grown on the eastern side of the state in the Hudson Valley and Champlain Valley regions. Eastern New York growers benefited from being near large population centers and developed strong ties to New York City markets. Processed apples were grown in western New York, with a dozen apple processors sourcing product.

With demand for processed fruit products stagnant in recent years, the state is no longer a major hub for processing. Only four processors now remain to purchase product, according to Allen.

A shift is also taking place within the state with regard to growing regions. Housing and population pressures are blamed for a decline in production in the Hudson Valley. In western New York, fresh production is increasing as more processed apple growers are making the switch to fresh.

Tree fruit production in New York is usually located near a large body of water to take advantage of moderating temperatures. Lake Ontario, the fourteenth largest lake in the world, provides a wide “banana belt” for tree fruit production, as it remains open all winter. Orchards planted within 20 to 25 miles of the lake rarely receive tree-killing temperatures in the winter or damaging temperatures during bloom. Protection is also provided to orchards planted near the shores of the various Finger Lakes, Hudson River, and Lake Champlain.

Fresh challenges

Moving from processing to fresh production is a difficult challenge, said Steve Hoying, Cornell University Cooperative Extension educator. “The mindset is different, equipment is different. For many, the kids aren’t returning to the farm, so there’s no one to carry on and help make the needed changes.”

Dr. Terence Robinson, New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, New York, agreed that it’s a “difficult technological challenge.”

Research led by Robinson, Hoying, and others during the last 25 years has focused on replanting and retooling orchards to produce fresh market quality, as well as on new fresh market varieties, modern horticultural techniques, and the economics of dwarfing rootstocks and high density planting systems.

“You can see the evidence of the research,” Robinson said, adding that recent acreage surveys show less acreage devoted to apples, though production continues to increase. Average crop size in recent years has grown to consistently more than 25 million bushels. “Even processing yields have improved.”

Robinson and Hoying have conducted research on the production and economics of high density systems. A ten-year trial compared vertical axis, slender spindle, V-slender spindle, super spindle, V-trellis, and Y-trellis training systems. Results showed no great differences in yield, quality, or profitability between the different systems when trees were planted at the same density. However, the investment risk increases as density numbers rise. Hoying and Robinson found that the optimum planting density is related more to economic factors than horticultural limitations.

While the data showed that high density plantings with up to 5,000 trees per acre are manageable in New York, most growers are planting at densities of 500 to 1,500 trees per acre with trees spaced three to five feet apart, Hoying said.

Room for more

Is there room for an expansion of fresh market apples in New York State?

“Absolutely,” Robinson answered, adding that he’s very bullish on the fresh market potential for New York tree fruit production.

He cited two main advantages that New York State apple producers enjoy over other apple producing regions-closeness to major metropolitan areas and a wide range of variety mix.

East Coast consumers like McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Empire, and Macoun-varieties that do well in the cool climate. With soaring transportation costs, proximity to market is becoming a more important benefit.

Hoying added that much of New York’s tree fruit industry has built the infrastructure needed to handle the increased volume of fresh product. “There are now better packing, better cold storage rooms, and the quality of fruit is improved.”

And, New York has the perfect climate for growing apples. “Lake Ontario provides the most constant and consistent growing season. No frost protection is needed, and there are no water issues.”

But while there is room for expansion of fresh apple production in New York, Robinson cautioned that the transition will not come easily.

“It’s capitalization that’s the problem. How do we pay for that shift to high density, new varieties?”

Obtaining financing for new orchards or replanting can be difficult, especially for the small family farmer. High density orchards require more investment up-front, primarily because of the increased number of trees and support needed for the training system. Few growers are able to grow their own high quality nursery trees.