Trees are tied to wires using short sections of rubber tubing.

Trees are tied to wires using short sections of rubber tubing.

While many of the fruit-farming families on Fruit Ridge are into their sixth generation, there’s still opportunity for newcomers, says Mark Zemaitis, as he casts his eyes toward open fields with slopes that look ideal for fruit.

Zemaitis is farm manager at Riveridge Land Company, a subsidiary of Riveridge Produce Marketing, which packs and wholesales a third of Michigan’s fresh apple crop. In 1994, it bought 40 open acres to plant to apples and nine years later formed the subsidiary that Zemaitis manages.

The farm now includes about 400 acres, mostly apples, but a new game plan has led them to plant 12 acres of sweet cherries, some plums, and four acres of blueberries. They purchased high tunnels last year and covered an acre, and filled the tunnels with raspberries. Strawberries may be added in the future. It’s completely unlike the wholesale marketing enterprise of the parent company.

“We don’t have a name for it yet, but we’re planning to open a pick-your-own farm market next year,” Zemaitis said. “The traffic on this road is unbelievable, it’s phenomenal.” It won’t be the first farm market in the area, but it will be among the first with pick-your-own sweet cherries and the first with raspberries under protective cover.

“This road” he refers to is Fruit Ridge Avenue, which runs north from Grand Rapids. Fruit Ridge is an old fruit-growing area, by Michigan standards, dating back more than a century and a half. Today, it’s crowded with orchards, mostly apples, many of them new high-density plantings. The area, 20 miles long and eight wide, produces more than half of Michigan’s annual 20-million-bushel apple crop.
A few years ago, when a fruit-growing career looked less promising, some good sites were sold for high-end homes. Now, the steam has gone out of real estate, and enterprises like farm markets serve the newcomers.

Rejuvenating

Since buying the first 40 acres of bare land, the company has been buying or leasing land already in fruit and rejuvenating orchards as needed, Zemaitis said. Last winter, he hosted visitors on an International Fruit Tree Association tour and showed off the orchard design that seems to be taking the area by storm.

The new plantings are tall spindle, with trees three feet apart in rows ten feet apart on four-wire trellis and trickle-irrigated. Most of the soils are clay-loam, and irrigation is not usually used on these high-vigor sites. But with 1,400 trees per acre, such new plantings on the Ridge are ­irrigated.

At the close spacing, vigor control comes through using rootstocks like M.9 Nic 29, tying down limbs in the first two years, renewal pruning to remove one to three of the largest limbs every year, and early cropping. Tree height is about nine feet.

“The ten-foot alleys are pretty narrow, but we think it’s doable,” Zemaitis said. “Tall spindle takes a lot more tender loving care the first couple of years, but we think it will pay off later with lower pruning costs, better light penetration, better spray coverage, and, hopefully, better quality and yield.”

Until the freezes this spring, they were on track to get 150 bushels per acre in their second leaf and triple that next year, he said. “Freezes make life difficult. We depend on cropping to keep the trees under control, and when we lose the crop, we have to do other things, like spraying with Apogee [prohexadione calcium] to suppress growth.”

The farm contains 19 varieties of apples. The first 40 acres were planted half to Gala and the rest to Ginger Gold, Braeburn, and Red Cortland. The newer acreage is Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Fuji, and red strains of McIntosh. “We’re getting away from Ginger Gold, Braeburns, Romes, and Red Delicious, and Idared is a question mark for the future,” Zemaitis said.

Wind machines

This year, four, late-spring freezes demonstrated the importance of good sites—elevation and location—and of frost protection measures.
 “We had six big tower wind machines and afterward purchased eight more,” he said. “We ran them on seven or eight nights. On the night before Mother’s Day, we saw a low of 22˚F on some low sites.”

Like water marks left on trees after a flood, fruit showed where the cold air settled, with trees near the edge having apples in the tops and none at the ­bottom.

“We had to hand thin some apples in a circle around the wind machines,” Zemaitis said. “Beyond the circle, there was no fruit.” Wind machines demonstrated their place in the orchard, and the freezes showed where to locate them.

Cherries on berms

The sweet cherry plantings at Riveridge just finished their third leaf this year with a small fruit crop. On the Ridge, sweet cherries are not much planted, but demand for locally grown sweet cherries has soared. Zemaitis took a page from Cornell University research to address issues of tree health and survival and ­pollination.

Using a six- by 14-foot spacing, he planted seven varieties, both to find which fared best and for good pollination. He planted Attika, Benton, Regina, Sweetheart, Balaton, and two New York test varieties, NY38L and NY8137.

He planted on Gisela 6 rootstock, to avoid the problems of phytophthora root rot. Gisela rootstocks showed greater tolerance to the disease than Mahaleb or Mazzard in New York tests.

In addition, he planted on berms, slightly raised beds, to avoid problems associated with excessive soil moisture. In New York, similar heavy soils have waterlogged in spring, encouraging root rots, and delayed dormancy in fall, leading to winter injury. Subsurface drainage tile between the rows drains away excess moisture, and trickle irrigation down the row provides moisture in the summer, when berms can dry out. Pressure-­compensating emitters handle the rolling ground.