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Orchardists on Fruit Ridge northwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan, suffered mightily when the market for processing apples weakened in the last decade of the twentieth century, and it looked like the damage might be permanent.

Real estate developers jumped on the best sites, putting houses on the tops of these sunny south-facing slopes that define the area, and spurring concern about preservation of century-old fruit farms.

But these families—now extended but still calling themselves Alpiners after the area in central Europe their ancestors left behind—had survived adversity before. Once called Peach Ridge, the area made a massive shift to apples for processing after the peach market collapsed following a devastating freeze in 1906.

Peach Ridge Avenue and Fruit Ridge Avenue run parallel to each other, a mile apart, starting just south of Grand Rapids and running north more than 20 miles. Those roads are the Ridge’s backbone, and fruit orchards sit, herringbone style, on rolling hills running seven or eight miles east and west of them.

Now, the orchards are showing the results of more than a decade of renewal. Growers have pushed many of the processing varieties and the larger M.26-size trees and shifted to high-density plantings of fresh-market varieties growing on dwarfing rootstocks in slender spindle, tall spindle, and vertical axis systems. Trellises are everywhere, but every grower seems to have his or her own idea about how tall they should be, how many wires they should have, and what kind of posts and fasteners should be used.

There are about 37,000 acres of apples in Michigan, half of them in the Grand Rapids area.

Change

Members of the International Fruit Tree Association, which was born in Michigan 53 years ago, have toured the Ridge many times over the years, witnessing the change from seedling rootstocks, to central leader semidwarfs 50 years ago, and now to new, high-density systems. In March, more than 300 IFTA members toured the ridge again.

The tour spilled off the Ridge a bit, too, into the Belding area 12 miles east, where a high plateau ­provides good fruit sites. One of the best-known orchards on the tour was Wittenbach Orchards, owned by Ed Wittenbach, an IFTA director, and his wife, Linda, and their son Mike and his wife, Marnie. The Wittenbachs are quick to find exciting new varieties and orchard styles.

They provided a test site for MN. 1914 on Budagovsky 9 in 2002, five years before that Honeycrisp offspring was named SweeTango. Those 20 trees are still there, joined by 16 more acres. Wittenbachs are members of Next Big Thing, the cooperative that is marketing SweeTango as a club variety.

Mike is the fourth generation on the farm. The ­Wittenbachs grow 220 acres of apples, but they also grow field crops on 650 acres, which once supported a dairy operation.

Many of their apples are grown on a vertical axis system using the M.9 clone Nic.29. They shoot for a tree height of 12 feet and a yield of 900 bushels per acre when trees are mature.

Records show their Ruby Jon apples made 984 bushels per acre last year, in their ninth leaf, and Honeycrisp yielded 646 bushels last year in their fifth leaf. “That block of Honeycrisp on Nic.29, probably we cropped it too early,” Ed said. “We probably should have taken the apples off the second year, but we got greedy, and now we have to pay for it in the long run. You never do everything just right.”

Super spindle

A nearby farm on the tour featured a block of trees on super-spindle design. That is owned by Ron Rasch, a fifth-generation Ridge grower who owns and operates 850 acres of apples spread over five counties. The 11-year-old super spindle, Ginger Gold and Gala on B.9, was on his farm when he bought it in 2003. The super-spindle system is maintained on a nine-wire trellis, with trees planted 18 inches apart in rows 13 feet apart, 2,200 trees per acre.

But Rasch has a variety of different systems and tree densities. In 2005, they planted Honeycrisp, SweeTango, and Piñata in a vertical-axe system, with one trellis wire and a tree stake, planted on a 5- by 15-foot spacing.

Since then, newer plantings have been on a three-wire trellis with bamboo stakes and a 3- by 13-foot tree spacing. Narrower alleys wouldn’t work with his existing equipment, he said, and he likes the spacing for good sunlight capture and low shading. His newer plantings are Pacific Gala and Linda Mac on M.26 and Honeycrisp on G.16.

Ridgeview Orchards

Joe and Al Dietrich established Ridgeview Orchards in 1983, and they have 550 acres of apples and 20 acres of sweet cherries. In 2008, they made a tall spindle planting of Honeycrisp on B.118 and Gala and McIntosh on M.9 T337 in a 3- by 11-foot system and used a tree stabilizer, tall trellis system. The system uses two wires with a third vertical wire attached to the wires and to each tree.

“We learned that in New York,” said Dan Dietrich, Al’s son anda member of the next generation on the farm. “It was a lot cheaper than bamboo. It was either go with this or a third wire.” The cost, including the labor and clips to attach the trees to the wire, was about the same as having a third wire.

The Dietrichs planted using knip trees. “You can tell the difference when you use quality trees,” he said. Yields in the second leaf on Gala were 180 bushels per acre, he said.

In a demonstration, Phil Schwallier showed how easy it is to prune trees in the tall spindle system. Each year, take out the two largest limbs, using a bench, or bevel, cut to stimulate a new bud, continually renewing the tree. “The tall spindle system is very productive, easy to learn,” he said. “If you start with nice trees, lots of feathers, it can be very rewarding.”

At Riveridge Land Company, there were more tall spindle orchards. Riveridge is associated with Riveridge Produce Marketing, which is one of Michigan’s largest shippers of fresh apples. The farm manager is Mark Zemaitis, who oversees about 350 acres containing 19 varieties of apples and 10 acres of sweet cherries and some blueberries. The major planting style is tall spindle.

Last year, the farm put in a solid block of Brookfield Gala on Nic.29 planted 3 feet apart in 10-foot rows—1,400 trees per acres—and installed a four-wire trellis for training the trees. Trickle irrigation was installed also, a relatively new practice for the Ridge, where soils are heavy and rainfall is good. Many of the new high-density plantings are now irrigated at the time of establishment to get fast tree growth.