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Michael Zingler stands next to a planting of SweeTango in its third leaf and describes the reasoning behind the design of the orchard: Efficient use of harvest labor.

Michael Zingler stands next to a planting of SweeTango in its third leaf and describes the reasoning behind the design of the orchard: Efficient use of harvest labor.

Western New York apple grower Michael Zingler likes his harvest system well enough to design his orchards to fit it.

“This is kind of tall spindlish, but trees have to be four feet apart or closer to fit that category,” said Dr. Terence Robinson, the Cornell University horticulturist who promotes the tall spindle system he and his colleagues devised. “This is more ­vertical axe. It has more permanent lower limbs.”

“It’s a hybrid,” Zingler agrees. “I’m all for tall spindle, but I don’t like the multiwire trellis. The way we harvest is with a large group of people working around three bins on a steel sled. We do four rows of trees at a time, and we need space to move around the trees. We don’t like being fenced in by trellis.”

For that reason, he plants his apples on Malling 9 rootstocks at a 5- by 12-foot spacing and stabilizes the trees with conduit fixed to a single trellis wire at seven feet high. Wooden trellis posts are 35 feet apart. Tree density figures out to 726 per acre, about two-thirds that of a tall spindle spacing and a third of the super spindle density.

While the trees fill the space and do touch each other, Zingler uses the tall spindle’s renewal pruning approach, removing large limbs and not allowing the lower scaffolds to develop as strongly as in the vertical axe system. “It’s sort of a less dense tall spindle system,” he said. Workers easily push between trees to empty their picking sacks in the bins that slide along on a steel sled pulled by a tractor.

His R.M. Zingler Jr. Farms, Kendall, New York, was toured by the International Fruit Tree Association last summer. Ideally, a harvest crew contains 14 people, and each crew does about 80 bins a day. About three pickers work each row of trees, moving about as needed to keep the entire crew moving together. Some pick lower branches from the ground; others use ladders to get apples from higher up, 12 to 14 feet. One tractor driver handles bins, and one worker supervises the crew.

The supervisor’s job is quality management, making sure the apples are handled properly and tossing out poor fruit found in the bins. “We focus on quality,” Zingler said. “We want a 99 percent packout. That’s very elusive and hard to achieve, but that is the goal.” With processing apple prices somewhat low, there’s not much incentive to take poor quality apples to storage. With prices stronger this year, he did send crews into the orchards after harvest to pick up some drops.

“Specifically, each crew utilizes two tractors, each pulling a sled holding three bins,” Zingler said. “There is one tractor driver for the two tractors. He brings empty bins in and then takes the other tractor out with full bins. The supervisor stays with the crew at all times for quality assurance and moves the tractor ahead slightly as needed to keep close to the pickers.”

The tractor driver moves filled bins to loading areas and stacks them with a forklift for trucking away later. It takes about a half hour for pickers to fill three bins, just about the right amount of time for the driver to transport bins.

H-2A workers

Zingler’s work force is made up of 11 year-round employees, plus another eight or ten who come in the spring to finish up pruning, plus 35 H-2A guest workers from Mexico who do much of the harvesting, plus another eight to ten non-H-2A workers who come in off the street.

“H-2A is very expensive and cumbersome,” he said, “but four years ago, we decided we couldn’t run a business not knowing who was going to show up for work. Travel and housing increases the costs of H-2A workers, and wages are higher, not only for them but for all the others we hire as well.”

H-2A rules require growers to pay an “adverse effect” wage that is higher than minimum wage, not only for H-2A workers but also for all workers doing the same job on the farm. Employers have to pay for H-2A workers’ transportation to and from their home country and provide housing and transportation for them while they are at the farm.

To stay competitive in that system, Zingler says, he has to manage the labor better.

“I’d be very interested in using some sort of platform for harvest, but that’s in the future,” he said. “Now, we use that sled. It’s a sheet of steel with a nose for a hitch, and it slides on the ground; no wheels, no moving parts. It’s cheap.

“We have an experimental, prototype platform built by our farm projects manager, Chris Perrin. It has a wooden platform that is quite adjustable, and we use it for pruning mature trees. We’re not using ladders at all for pruning. We were using pole saws with reciprocating blades, and that’s hard work. We like the platform for pruning.”

He likes to plant high quality nursery trees and not prune them at all the first year. “Pruning is negligible up to the fourth leaf,” he said. Then he begins to take out larger limbs to renew the tree.

He no longer uses Budagovsky 9 rootstocks, which are widely used on the fertile soils in New York. Zingler says the trees on Bud.9 on just too small.

Started from scratch

Zingler began farming on his own in 1991, when he was 24, renting orchards owned by a retiring grower he was working for. Since then, he’s bought 570 acres of land and has about 350 acres in apples. When he bought them, orchards were mostly processing varieties like Empire, Rome, Golden Delicious, and Idared, but he’s been converting to fresh market varieties like Gala, Honeycrisp, Piñata, Cameo, and SweeTango.

He owns no storage at the farm. “We’re part owners of Lake Ontario Fruit Company,” he said. “It is a major fruit storage and packing company based in Albion, New York. I was invited to join a new ownership team there three years ago. This summer, there was a major expansion with the addition of a second packing line and an additional storage building.”

Zingler’s goals are to get a good yield of high quality fruit of the right varieties, with most of it packed for fresh market. Western New York still produces apples for processing, with the Mott’s plant at Williamson taking about seven million bushels a year, about a quarter of total production. This market is still an important one for Zingler.

A member of Next Big Thing, he has 16 acres of SweeTango apples, most just coming into bearing. Some in their second leaf produced 180 bushels per acre in 2009.

“I should have had 500 bushels per acre this year,” he said, “but frost followed by heat during thinning reduced the yield.” After some quick clicking, the calculator pegged his yield at 278 bushels per acre on trees in their third leaf.

Zingler keeps a sharp eye on his costs and returns from each orchard. He doesn’t want to wait too long before replanting, always keeping up with consumer tastes. Currently, he’s worried about the low market acceptance of Cameo. “I’ve never grafted over an orchard before,” he said, “but I may have to.”