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Malling 9 rootstocks in stoolbeds at Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Washington on May 1, 2014. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Malling 9 rootstocks in stoolbeds at Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Washington on May 1, 2014. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Washington tree fruit growers who plan to reinvest their healthy returns from their last two crops in orchard renewal or expansion are being thwarted by a shortage of nursery trees.

And nursery tree production is limited by a shortage of rootstocks as well as the fact that nurseries have limited land, machinery, and labor for ramping up production.

Neal Manly, chief marketing officer with ­Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington, said he is sold out of trees for the next two years and there’s not much available for 2017.

“We’ve got a backlog of requests that are piled up ­chronologically, so we’re processing it as fast as we can,” he said.

The big sellers are Honeycrisp (both red and standard strains) and red strains of Fuji and Gala, which are mostly for updating orchards rather than new plantings.

Willow Drive, which is one of two nurseries in ­Washington that produce rootstocks as well as trees, has gradually increased its rootstock production over the last three to four years, Manly said.

Malling 9 rootstocks are in high demand, as are new Geneva rootstocks from New York, which may offer ­resistance to fire blight, replant disease, or woolly apple aphids.

Rootstocks are produced in either stool beds or layer beds that take several years to come into production.

Manly said Willow Drive Nursery is taking out its stool beds of the less popular, semidwarfing rootstocks, such as Malling 26, M.111, and M.7, to make more room to grow more Geneva stocks, but there’s limited amount of Geneva material coming from the tissue culture labs that the nurseries use to establish their stool beds.

“With Geneva, you have to order material from a tissue lab, and if they’re at full capacity, it’s not easy to get what you want when you want it,” he said. “Then you put it in the ground and it’s two to three years before you get into full production. It’s not like a widget where we turn on a machine and spit a rootstock out the back side.”

Nurseries worry that by the time they’ve geared up their ­rootstock and tree production, demand for trees might not be so strong.

“Do you react to the uptick in demand only to see it ­eventually come back down?” Manly asked. “That’s a worry. It is cyclical.”

Paul Tvergyak, marketing director at Cameron Nursery, Eltopia, Washington, which also produces both rootstocks and finished trees, said that rootstock stool beds or layer beds have not been ­drastically increased for a long time, so production is stable.

Standing orders take a large proportion of those rootstocks, leaving a limited number for the open market.

“In most cases they’re already ­contracted for the maximum that those layer beds can produce,” he said.

But the problem for nurseries is not just a shortage of rootstocks.

“We just don’t have the land or labor to manage a big enough nursery to meet the need,” said Tvergyak, who estimates that demand for nursery trees has been exceeding supplies by about 10 ­percent, despite some of the larger growers ­producing their own nursery trees.

Nursery tree production is even more labor intensive than fruit production, he said. “The labor’s outrageous. In an orchard, you have a few people ­working all the time and more at harvest and thinning. In nurseries, you’re sending 40 guys through once or twice a week to do ­something to each tree.”

However, Tvergyak said it makes sense that when growers are making money they spend it on converting to more ­popular varieties and newer strains of the classic varieties, such as Gala, that are bigger and redder.

“If you’re making money, now is the time to do it because in five years you might not be making money. I can’t blame the growers for doing this at all. I would do it.”

More than ever

Pete Van Well II at Van Well Nursery in East Wenatchee, Washington, said that despite nurseries’ inability to meet demand, he believes there are more ­nursery trees in the ground than there have ever been before, and he wonders how long such strong demand can ­continue.

“We definitely feel like we’re in the upswing of the cycle,” he said. “I think everyone in the apple industry feels that way right now. It would be great if it would maintain forever, but at some point we’re going to see a reversal.”

He believes the strong demand for trees can be attributed in part to a shift to higher tree densities as well as expansion.

“When you have 2,000 trees per acre times 100 acres, that’s 200,000 trees, and some of these guys are putting in pretty big plantings.” •