Three experts teamed up to make the case for precision orchard management. From left are economist Alison DeMarree, fruit grower Rod Farrow, and horticulturist Terence Robinson.
PHOTO BY RICHARD LEHNERT
With some new apple varieties, like Honeycrisp, selling for more than $50 a box wholesale, suddenly orchards are capable of producing levels of annual income before only dreamed of previously, with revenues above $30,000 per acre.
Some modern varieties sell for wonderful prices, and most varieties sell for better prices than they used to, so most growers are making money producing apples. The question is, “How much money are you leaving on the table?” How much more could you make by doing more things better?
Imagine, for example, that you are a grower in the eastern United States. You run into a late-summer drought and your crop suddenly doesn’t size as well as it might have. You drop a count size in Galas and lose $5 a box. Irrigation would have paid for itself in one year.
Yet only 15 percent of the orchards in New York State are irrigated.
When Rod Farrow, owner of Lamont Farms in Albion, New York, made that reference to leaving money on the table, it set Cornell University horticulturist Dr. Terence Robinson thinking of all the ways growers fail to get all the income their orchards could produce if they used more precise management.
That led to the 2013 Eastern Apple Summit on Precision Orchard Management.
For two days, 214 growers listened—and participated in discussion with—a “faculty” of 17 professors, extension educators, growers, and crop consultants. The orchard management school was held in a hotel on the east bank of Lake Geneva in mid-March.
Cornell usually hosts an in-depth fruit school for New York growers, but this year, in a bold move, the school expanded to reach out to all growers in the East, who largely share New York conditions. Growers came from 10 nearby states and two Canadian provinces, almost matching the attendance figure of 102 set by New York growers alone.
“We hope this will keep the different eastern states on the same technological page and lead to cross-state cooperative efforts in research and extension to improve orchard management,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the faculty identified ten orchard management practices that could lend themselves to more precise management and improved profitability:
- Crop-load management—pruning and thinning
- Nutrient management
- Water management
- Weed management
- Orchard design—and the possibility of further mechanization
- Labor management
- Risk management
- Disease management
- Insect management
- Harvest management
These were all addressed in a series of eight two-hour workshops and will be covered in a series of articles in Good Fruit Grower.
Variety management is not included in the list, however the Cornell economic analysis done by extension educator Alison DeMarree shows that price per bushel is the single largest determiner of profitability in an orchard. Choice of variety has been a key element in obtaining high prices.
“Improving price received by variety is the single most effective method of improving profitability,” she said. Beyond that, growers need to get fruit picked on time, get it cooled quickly, focus on harvesting the highest value fruit first and worry about drops later (if at all), and review packout statements for clues about causes of culled fruit. Treat the best fruit in special ways, keeping culls out of bins, and set goals, such as increasing fruit size by one count.
Growers need good records so they know their yields by variety and block and can identify reasons why yield is not reaching its potential. Is it water, weeds, thinning, nutrition, pollination, or missing trees?
Growers need to identify blocks that are not profitable or marginally so, and pull those with obsolete or poor-coloring varieties or too-wide spacing, for example.
Farrow noted the significant penalty for small fruit. In 2009, 88-count Honeycrisp sold for $47 a bushel, while smaller Honeycrisp in bags sold for $31.07, nearly a $16 difference. For Gala, the price difference was $7.25, with larger Galas selling for $28.20.
Yield, of course, is very important as well. Farrow thinks the upper limit on yield of Honeycrisp with good flavor and other important qualities is 900 bushels per acre, while Gala can produce sustainable yields of 1,400 bushels and Empire 1,600.
At those yields, Honeycrisp can generate nearly $33,000 per acre, Gala about $21,000, and Empire $15,000.
But these are goals for New York, he said. Pacific Northwestern growers are shooting for much higher yields—1,800 bushels per acre for Honeycrisp, 2,400 for Gala or Empire, Farrow said. At $54 per bushel, wholesale, a Honeycrisp grower in Washington State can shoot for nearly $70,000 in income per acre, after packing and storage charges.
“The West is already adopting a precision management system,” he said. They are growing fruit in thin walls and using tools such as reflective mulch to capture even more of the sunlight they already have in greater abundance.
Labor is a huge cost in all fruit production, and one of the key recommendations from the summit was: use more machines, and prepare for still more machines in the near future. Robinson believes platforms are essential tools, not only for tasks like pruning, thinning, tree training, and installing trellises and bird netting, but for harvest as well. Cornell is working with nurseryman/inventor Paul Wafler to bring a harvester to market soon.
The search for robots that can replace the human brain, eye, and hand in harvesting fruit is “total folly” in Robinson’s view, and money has been “wasted” in attempts to develop such robots. The key is to assist humans—to eliminate climbing, walking, and carrying by putting pickers in a stationary position where they can pick swiftly and efficiently.
While labor management made the top ten list, the need for management to take charge and manage itself could have been there as well. “For anybody to get anything valuable from these workshops, somebody has to do something,” Robinson said.
One objective of the school, he said, is to help apple growers understand the potential income from each orchard block and how to use precision orchard management to capture that potential. But someone on the farm actually needs to make the decisions and make sure the work gets done.
Noting the number of young growers at the school, Robinson said it appears there are talented and energized young people ready to move into positions that ensure the best orchard practices are implemented. Owners of these family farms need to delegate, he said.