These finished nursery trees will soon be harvested and prepared for later planting  by growers.

These finished nursery trees will soon be harvested and prepared for later planting by growers.

With the proliferation of new tree fruit varieties released in the last decade, the next ten years should spark consumer interest and excitement in the tree fruit category, say nursery representatives.

The most important change that Wanda Heuser Gale of Summit Tree Sales hopes will happen in the next decade is a revival in the consumer’s interest in apples. The whole point of planting new varieties—that are more flavorful than their older counterparts—is to provide consumers with a better eating experience. “We need to get people to eat more apples!” she said emphatically.

She is watching to see how the club and managed varieties play out in the next decade. “My gut feeling is that the good ones will do well, and the poorly managed or poor varieties (those not unique) will fail.” With the explosion of new apple varieties released in the last eight or nine years, especially in Europe, the nursery representative from Lawrence, Michigan, believes that it’s “make or break time” for many public and private varieties. “That’s neither good nor bad, but it will be interesting to watch.”

She predicts that demand for heavily branched, expensive trees as well as inexpensive, sleeping eye trees will continue to strengthen in the next decade. There’s a need for both types of nursery trees, she said. Heuser also thinks that knipboom trees, widely used in Europe, will become more popular with U.S. growers. “I think it’s an exceptional tree to put in the ground, although it is harder for nurseries to grow. But I hope to see more knips being used in the next decade,” Heuser said.

The availability of minor varieties and lesser-used rootstocks in the future will continue to decline due to the problem of finding a home for minor combinations. “You’re not going to find those oddball combinations, like Paula Red on Malling 26 or Grimes Golden on M.111, anymore because it’s just too expensive to try to find a home for them. If you don’t find a home, you end up having fuel for a weenie roast at the end of the year.”

Ken Adams, president of Willow Nursery Drive in Ephrata, Washington, is also hopeful that the parade of new varieties will translate into increased consumption. “We’ve perfected almost all of the mainstream varieties by using sports to improve color and such. We’re to the point now of ‘how much redder does a variety need to be?’”

Honeycrisp is an example of a variety that has done a lot for the apple category, exciting consumers with its taste and crunch, he said.

“The next ten years should be really exciting. I hope the consumers like the new varieties that are now available and that apple consumption is increased as a result. We’ve got to create excitement with consumers and apples.”

Closer relationship

Adams predicts that closer relationships between grower and nursery will develop in the next decade, in part due to the plethora of varieties now available. Growers want more specific scion and variety combinations than in the past, he said. “Forward contracting is becoming the norm,” he said, explaining that forward contracting requires a head start on the grower’s part so that the nursery knows what rootstock to put in the ground. “This means there has to be a closer working relationship between the grower and nursery, which I believe is a good thing.”

He also thinks growers will soon be planting rootstocks that are resistant to fireblight, a disease that has flared up in some areas because many of the new varieties are sensitive to the disease. At Willow Drive, he said they are testing rootstocks from Cornell University, along with others from international sources, to find the best fireblight-resistant rootstocks.

European pressures

International nurseryman Pierre Herman of France’s Castang Group is not as upbeat about the future of the tree fruit industry as his American colleagues. With a commercial nursery operation, orchards, and packing facilities, the family-owned Castang business, located near Bergerac, is one of the country’s largest tree fruit nurseries and one of the largest private apple producers.

Because of European environmental concerns regarding pesticides, future varieties will have to be resistant to a wide span of diseases, such as scab and powdery mildew, and certain pests, Herman said to the Good Fruit Grower in an e-mail. “Three to four years from now, we will not use any chemical weed killers, thus, we will have to revert to tilling the soil in the tree row, with the considerable extra cost of labor,” he said.

Herman does not see any relief in the next decade to the high labor costs that French growers must endure. Labor costs represent about 60 percent of total production costs, he explained. “At this time, our average hourly cost of labor in the orchard, for 35 hours a week, is 15 euros per hour (U.S.$21.75). Not only is this cost high, but we are not finding any more native French workers.”

He is critical of the large, cooperative marketing organizations in Europe that he thinks are only interested in their part of the market and not in improving returns for the grower. For the last 15 years, according to Herman, tree fruit production has been down an average of 30 percent, and yet the marketing forces have downgraded the sales prices.

“The largest global market for fruit is Europe,” he said. “Unfortunately, the administrative constrictions from our governments and the incapacity of Bruxelles (European Union government headquarters) paralyze all new initiatives. Thus, to my opinion, the future of our profession in France does not appear too brilliant.”