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Hillsides near Bolzano are planted to apples and wine grapes, utilizing every meter of land.

Hillsides near Bolzano are planted to apples and wine grapes, utilizing every meter of land.

Published January 15, 2011

An international group of tree fruit industry members traveled to northern Italy last November to see how mechanization has been adopted in high-density tree fruit plantings. The group saw the latest technology at the biennial Interpoma and EIMA (International Exposition of Agriculture Equipment) trade shows. The trip was ­organized by Susan Pheasant and Mauricio Frias of WeCu, Inc.

Apple growers in northern Italy have stayed competitive in the last decade by modernizing orchard systems and mechanizing orchard tasks. A well-funded and coordinated extension service has helped growers increase average production to impressive levels, and nearly all follow integrated fruit production (IFP) practices. To remain competitive, the industry is looking to further improve orchard efficiencies as well as identify new varieties that will help keep growers profitable.

The two main apple-producing areas in northern Italy are the South Tyrol and its 70-mile long Etsch Valley and the larger Po Valley that drains east into the Adriatic Sea.

The South Tyrol region, with its stunning Dolomite mountain views and chalet-style homes, looks like the backdrop for The Sound of Music. It was part of Austria until the end of World War I when it was annexed by Italy. It was given political autonomy in the 1960s, essentially creating a free state that makes its own laws but is protected by the military. With a population of 500,000, South Tyrol is a blend of German and Italian ­cultures—both languages are spoken and signage is in both.

The South Tyrol is a year-round tourist attraction and land is expensive. A hectare of land sells for around €1 million, and square meters of land sell for €60 to €100 million (see “Metric Conversions” on page 20). Because of high land values, South Tyrol farms are small, ranging in size from 10 to 25 acres. Agricultural land, planted mostly to apples and wine grapes, rarely changes hands and stays in families for generations.

Farms are bigger in the Po Valley, where more diverse crops are grown, including stone fruit, pears, nursery trees, and other field crops. The ­average Po Valley farm size is around 30 to 50 acres.

But regardless of size or location, northern Italian apple orchards are highly productive. Average apple production is 60 tons per hectare, equivalent to 60 bins per acre.

Major changes

Providing an overview of the region, Kurt Werth, director of SK South Tyrol Variety Innovation Consortium, said that Italy’s apple industry has gone through major changes in the past 40 years to stay profitable. Large canopy trees planted in wide spacings have been replaced with vertical axis or slender spindle trees planted at high densities. Malling 9 rootstock is used in all apple orchards. Overhead sprinklers and hail nets have reduced the risk of frost and hail damage, and growers have invested in orchard platforms to use in opening and closing hail nets and assist with picking.

Grower cooperatives have a strong presence in South Tyrol. Nearly 95 percent of the region’s total apple production is packed and marketed through a grower cooperative. More than 40 grower-cooperatives are members of one of two marketing cooperatives, the Vinschgau Fruit and Vegetable Producers (VI.P) and the Association of South Tyrolean Fruit Growers’ Cooperatives (VOG).

Werth noted that in the past year, VI.P went from nine sales entities in the region to one, and VOG shrunk down from 18 to 4 pools or sales offices. The consolidated retail environment in Europe has resulted in a more concentrated and coordinated marketing effort by the apple industry.

“In the past, high-density plantings, high productivity, and well-organized cooperative marketing have kept the region strong,” Werth said, adding that South Tyrol produces about 12 percent of the apples grown in Europe.

Total production in the region is about a million tons (about half of Italy’s apple production), produced by 8,000 farmers on fewer than 45,000 acres. He believes that new varieties and more efficient marketing will help keep the industry profitable in the future.