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South Tyrol extension advisor Bernhard Botzner shows the concrete poles used for trellis supports.

South Tyrol extension advisor Bernhard Botzner shows the concrete poles used for trellis supports.

Published January 15, 2011

Don’t let the small size fool you. Individual apple orchards near Merano, in Italy’s Vinschgau Valley, may only be a few acres in size, but the valley has trees planted wall to wall, and the orchard uniformity makes it appear that only a few growers are farming the area.

Vinschgau Valley has the youngest apple orchards in South Tyrol. Growers there didn’t get serious about apple production until the late 1960s, said Bernhard Botzner, extension service advisor for the area. Before that, the ­valley’s sloping hillsides were used mainly for cattle ­production.

Today, about 1,700 growers are producing apples on 12,500 acres. Average farm size is eight acres spread around seven to ten different parcels.

“The farms are always divided,” Botzner said, explaining that through the generations, farms have been split among children and family members. He notes that the biggest farm in the area is 75 acres.

Merano and the Vinschgau Valley are at much higher elevations than the lower Bolzano area. Elevation of the valley floor averages 1,640 feet, but orchards planted on the hillsides climb to 4,820 feet. Red varieties are planted on the valley floor, with mostly Golden Delicious planted on the hillsides to take advantage of the red blush that occurs on the fruit grown at high elevations. A few orchards of Jazz recently have been planted in the area.

Botzner described the area as dry and windy, receiving an average of 18 inches of precipitation annually, only half of the rainfall received in the Bolzano area.

The 2009 crop for Vinschgau, and all of Italy, was a big one. In Vinschgau, growers produced 371,000 tons on 12,500 acres, the equivalent of 74 bins to the acre. This year, the crop, at 310,000 tons, was about 15 percent smaller than normal, but average production was still the equivalent of 62 bins per acre, a number that includes young, new trees, Botzner said.

Golden Delicious is productive, while Gala yields are medium. Gala production is 45 to 50 bins per acre.

Orchards at high elevations don’t need hail nets or frost protection, but those on the valley floor have overhead sprinklers for frost and netting for hail. Trees at the higher elevations are planted closer together because they are not as vigorous as trees planted on the valley floor.

Nearly all orchards are trained to the slender spindle, planted with 2.5 to 3.5 feet between trees and around 9 to 10 feet between rows. Trees reach 10 to 12 feet tall.

Orchard costs

Botzner, who keeps a binder filled with production numbers and orchard costs, gave the following for ­average costs of production:

  • Annual orchard costs—$7,300 per acre (labor, crop protection materials, fuel and equipment maintenance, but not establishment, hail nets, or capital expenses)
  • Hail nets—$7,000 per acre to install
  • Hail insurance—partly subsidized by the European Union, between $110 and 170 per acre
  • Mechanized platforms—wide range of prices, wide range of functions, from $20,000 for older models to $80,000 for top of the line
  • Concrete trellis posts—$12.50 to $15.50 each. Italy began using cement about 20 years ago, because concrete was more durable and cheaper than wood posts for trellises and hail nets.
  • Trees—well-feathered, knipboom trees $7.50 per tree, without royalties
  • Labor—$14 per hour, housing and meals sometimes provided. Harvest is completed in about three weeks. Pickers come from Poland, Slovenia, Romania, and other Eastern European countries.
  • Average picker productivity—5 bins per day (bins hold about 700 pounds)
  • Grower breakeven price—$0.11 per pound

Pest issues

Codling moth is the biggest insect problem for most Italian apple growers. Mating disruption has been used to control codling moth for the last 15 years and works well in areas with concentrated apple production.

The European Union, in an effort to encourage the adoption of mating disruption, has subsidized the cost of the pheromone applicators and reduced the cost of ­dispensers to the grower.

But even with mating disruption, growers often spray once or twice for codling moth, said grower and orchard consultant Thomas Pedross of Silandro. He explained that growers routinely spray chlorpyrifos (Lorsban) after bloom to help control a broad spectrum of insects.

Aphids, leafrollers, and leafminers are also common pest problems.

Rain during harvest can cause mildew and scab problems. Growers apply an average of 20 fungicide sprays per season to control scab and mildew. Fireblight is particularly troublesome because Italian growers cannot use antibiotics, like streptomycin or oxytetracycline, and biological agents like Blightban (Pseudomonas fluorescens strain A506) or Bloomtime (Pantoea agglomerans strain E325) are not registered. Apogee (prohexadione calcium) is used to help control shoot ­fireblight.

Pedross said that growers purchase chemicals and planting and trellis materials from the grower cooperatives, but not equipment, sprayers, or trees. Years ago, they purchased trees from the cooperatives, but now growers deal directly with the nurseries. Cooperatives pay out on the grower pools three times a year in March, July, and October.

Replant problems

Pedross said that orchard renewal rates in the Vinschgau Valley are low, currently around 7 percent. While some of the orchards, at 35 years old, are still in their first planting, many are in the second generation.

Soil fumigation is not allowed in Italy because of the high water table and concern about environmental issues. Replant problems have not been an issue yet in Vinschgau, but he believes replant disorders could show up in the future.

In some areas, growers can move the tree row when replanting so that new trees are in new soil. However, in many situations, growers cannot afford to replace the infrastructure and cement posts used to support hail nets and overhead irrigation systems, so they plant in the same rows. To overcome replant issues, they bring in new soil for the tree row. Equipment has been specially designed to dig soil from the middle of the orchard rows and move it five feet over to the tree row.