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The orchard of the future will have more trees per acre, in order to generate high early production, and bench grafts or sleeping eyes will be planted in place to make high-density plantings affordable, industry leaders envisioned during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s convention.

The trees will be trained to a trellis, probably a V system, with the goal of producing high yields of target fruit, which for apples means premium fruit in sizes 88 to 64. Orchards will be designed to accommodate technology, such as robotic harvesters.

Pears and cherries, like apples, will also need to be produced on high-density systems in the future, with the same goal of producing target fruit in an affordable way. Cherry crops might be 50 percent larger than now, with fruit the size of golf balls.

Here, the speakers describe their visions in more detail.

The time to think about the orchard of the future is now, Bob Brammer, president of a north central Washington fruit growing and packing operation, told growers at the Washington State Horticultural Association convention.

Unless growers completely renovate their orchards to take advantage of new labor-saving devices, such as picking platforms or automated picking machines, the technology will be disruptive, rather than advantageous, said Brammer, who is with Crane and Crane, Inc., Brewster.

“Technology is a threat and a tool. I’m convinced that a lot of orchards will not be very adaptable to coming technology.”

He envisions that orchards of the future will have 1,500 trees per acre. While that will require a new approach to canopy and crop-load management, they’ll produce early yields and allow growers to pick large fruit of consistent quality all the way from the top of the canopy to the orchard floor.

Sleeping eyes

To mitigate high establishment costs, growers will need to move the nursery to the site, and plant sleeping eyes or bench grafts, rather than fully grown nursery trees, he said. Some growers are already doing this and are able to grow a full canopy in two growing seasons.

The two-dimensional canopy will allow good spray penetration, allowing growers to use lower volumes and rates of pesticides and resulting in fewer residues or concerns about food safety.

Brammer noted that apple prices have been fairly stagnant for the past 20 years. He believes the way to change that trend is to consistently deliver a positive eating experience to the consumer. The question consumers most frequently ask is why they can’t get a good apple at the grocery store.

“How can we stay in business if that’s the most frequently asked question?” he asked.

New varieties, such as Honeycrisp, will enable producers to deliver on the promise of a good eating experience, though they might not be easy to grow. Several varieties are fetching $40 or more per box f.o.b., and he thinks these are helping to change retailers’ thinking about the value of apples.

“It’s happening, and some of those varieties have the potential to maintain that pricing,” he said.

Don Weippert’s apple orchard of the future begins with bench grafts planted in place, which means he needs very strong growth in the first two years so he can achieve early production.

The site, rootstock, variety, and training system are all key to the success of the orchard, he said. “I think most of the orchards of the future are going to be Malling 9 rootstock size in order to get target fruit and get into early production. But don’t plant a weak root on poor soil. That will be a disaster.”

Weippert, who owns orchards in Washington’s lower Yakima Valley, said growers should research the best type of trellis system to suit the variety. Sunburn susceptible varieties benefit from being on a V trellis because the fruit hangs in the shade.

By using bench grafts costing $1.30 each instead of regular nursery trees, he can cut establishment costs by $3,000 per acre, he calculates. “I think that’s the way of the future.”

He trains red varieties with two leaders, and Granny Smith or Golden Delicious with three to four leaders. Gala, for example, is planted six feet apart with nine feet between rows, so that he has vertical leaders every three feet down the row. A weaker variety, such as Braeburn, is planted on a three- by nine-foot spacing.

Early production

Weippert uses a drip irrigation system to apply fertigation for the first two years, by which time the trees should have reached the top wire of the trellis at 9.5 feet. Then, he puts in a sprinkler system and moves the drip system to the next new orchard. He aims for yields of 30 bins per acre in the third leaf, 40 in the fourth leaf, and 60 in the fifth leaf.

“It’s important to reach early production as cheaply as possible,” he said. “Don’t prune off what you work so hard to grow. If you can’t accomplish early production of target fruit fast, you will probably not recoup your cost of production.”

The Technology Roadmap for Tree Fruit Production has identified the need to reduce the cost of producing high quality fruit by 30 percent by the year 2010, and successful orchardists will find a way to achieve that, says Dan Plath, orchard manager with Washington Fruit and Produce Company, Yakima.

Washington Fruit plants red varieties on a vertical trellis with 800 to 900 trees per acre and green varieties on a V-trellis at about 1,500 trees per acre. Plath said he doesn’t foresee the company increasing the density of its plantings in the future. Higher densities have the advantage of earlier production, but the risks are much greater because of the high initial capital outlay.

Plath believes early production can be achieved at moderate densities by using drip irrigation and high rates of fertilizer to get plantings off to a good start and avoiding heading the trees. He uses leaf pinching to promote branching. Once a block is in production, the focus changes to controlling vigor. Plath said he only slightly reduces fertilizer applications, however, for fear of sacrificing fruit size. He expects that use of growth regulators to control the tree canopy will increase, and new rootstocks will help growers achieve the desired vigor level.

He envisions new varieties-possibly some genetically modified-in the apple orchard of the future, with the top five varieties of today-Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji-each accounting for between 15 and 20 percent of the crop. Niche varieties would make up the rest of the crop.

Irrigation systems of the future will be designed to provide frost control and cooling, and systems are likely to be automated. Mechanical and robotic harvesting, pruning, and thinning will also be employed, he believes. To accommodate this, the trees will form a tall fruiting wall on a seven- or eight-wire trellis. They will be grown from sleeping eyes or bench grafts planted in place. The tree will be chemically or manually manipulated to get branches in the proper locations so that one branch can be tied to each wire.

Use of precision agriculture will expand, with software allowing growers to monitor soil moisture, nutrient levels, insect populations, and weather conditions via probes and stations throughout the orchard. With GPS equipment and bar coding, yields and value per acre will be mapped. Better information management will lead to higher yields and fruit quality.

“Production continues to rise, and the labor supply continues to decline,” Plath noted. “Immigration laws appear to be becoming stricter. This is a recipe for disaster. Our industry will avoid this disaster, and in doing so, we will see some exciting changes.”

Washington State apple growers consider average production of 35 bins per acre over the first seven years of a planting as good production, but Tye Fleming of Wee Hoot Orchards, Orondo, Washington, said that will probably not be good enough to survive in the world market.

A grower who harvests 10 bins in the second leaf, 20 in the third, 40 in the fourth, 50 in the fifth, and 60 in the sixth and seventh leaf would consider that good production, but planting that orchard would not be a profitable investment, Fleming said. “What we’re doing now will not be viable in twenty years, or fifteen to twenty years. Sixty bins average will be minimum.”

In 15 years, the opportunity costs of land will be higher than today, and profit margins will shrink. Growers will need to plant disease-resistant trees with two- or three-year-old scions that give instant production and instant return on investment. Trees will be planted in the fall to better establish the root systems. Rootstocks will match the soil type, and varieties will be selected based on their productivity and the number of packed boxes per acre that can be produced, regardless of total tonnage.

“We have to have production, and it has to perform. We can’t afford not to make these changes,” Fleming said.

Higher densities

In the future, growers will plant more trees per acre, but they can’t afford to plant 3,000 trees per acre at current tree prices. Fleming said in the future, tree prices will need to be equal to the cost of half an hour of labor, with royalties charged on a per-acre basis. “We will be getting more for less,” he said.

Nurseries will find new ways to propagate varieties, using tissue culture, apomixic seeds (asexual propagation), or genetic modification.

Fleming said some of the things growers will not be doing in 20 years are:

-Waiting six to eight years for trees to come into full production.

-Planting nonbearing trees.

-Growing trees in place, because the opportunity cost of land will be too great.

-Planting in the spring.

“The trend is already in motion,” he said.

Del Feigal has lofty goals in terms of fruit production at Auvil Fruit Company’s Vantage, Washington, ranch, where he is manager, and consistent quality is top of them all.

“We’re trying to grow a uniform, consistent system so you know the type of quality you’re growing throughout the tree and throughout the block,” he said.

He either plants bench grafts in place or rootstocks that are budded in the summer.

Trees are planted 20 to 22 inches apart and grown on a modified Tatura trellis with 13 feet between tree rows and three to four feet between the tops of the canopies. The trellis has six to eight wires, about 18 inches apart, with the top wire at 13 feet high. Just one limb is trained to each wire on either side of the tree trunk to create a consistent fruiting surface, tree to tree and row to row.

“What we’re trying to do is grow a consistent fruiting wall,” Feigal explained.

His production expectations are 40 bins in the third leaf from the bud, and full production of 80 bins per acre from the fourth leaf onwards.

To achieve that, it’s important to build the canopy as fast as possible with high-quality fruiting wood, so that the main focus can be on using horticultural tools to grow high-quality fruit, rather than on growing vegetative wood and trying to get the trees to fill the space.

“Build the tree as fast as possible so you can use nutrient management or irrigation management to grow quality fruit,” Feigal advised.

Uniformity

Growth regulators are also important tools, he said. He uses Promalin (gibberellic acid) to promote branching to make sure the tree has a branch at each wire, and Apogee (prohexadione calcium) to hold tree growth within the system. The tree must be uniform from top to bottom. Fruit should hang underneath the limb on the wire, where it is out of direct sunlight but has enough light to color well. Fruit hang on four- to six-inch spurs so that they are far enough away from the trellis or limb to avoid limb rubs.

The goal is to grow a consistent system to achieve the production targets and produce quality fruit that consumers will purchase, and do it year in, year out, he said.

Cherries the size of golf balls?

Large crops of supersize cherries are what Travis Allan with Allan Brothers of Naches, Washington, envisions in the future.

He believes the most profitable cherry orchard in the future will be between 900 and 1,600 feet in elevation and will have more than 1,000 trees per acre.

His company has had disappointing experiences with Gisela rootstocks, and he hopes a Malling 9 equivalent will be found for cherries. He also sees a need for new varieties that are grower friendly, resistant to both mildew and cracking, and produce large fruit.

“Ten-and-a-half- and ten-row will be small cherries. We may pack seven-and-a-half-row cherries in the future,” he said, prompting laughter from the audience. “It’s going to look like a big golf ball, but I think that’s the way we want to go.”

Higher yields

Average yields will be ten tons per acre, rather than the six to eight tons common today, he predicted, and some orchards should be able to achieve 14 tons.

Trees will be trained to either a vertical or V trellis, and the limbs will be tied to the wires. Growth regulators will also be used to control vegetative growth. Wood will be constantly renewed to ensure a high percentage of two- or three-year-old wood in the tree.

New plantings will need to be designed so that minimum wages of $10 to $12 an hour are feasible in the future. Workers will move through the orchards on platforms to do tree training, pruning, and harvesting.

Since cherries need to be harvested without stems in a fully automated system, Allan foresees using a mechanically assisted system, rather than a mechanical harvester. “I like the stem on the cherries,” he said.

Allan foresees that cherries might be thinned off mechanically to manage the crop load.

Micromanage

Each row in the orchard might have a bar code to track yields and labor costs. Currently, it’s sufficient to track by the block, but if profit margins shrink, it will be important to micromanage each block, he said. New technology will allow growers to keep a database that will show them where to look in the orchard in order to make the right decisions.

Crops will grow, but Bing’s kingdom will shrink

Per-acre cherry production will increase, as well as overall industry production, predicts Lee Gale, horticulturist with Northwest Wholesale in Wenatchee, Washington. Trees will be smaller, densities higher, and quality standards will be redefined, he expects.

In 2005, the Pacific Northwest cherry industry produced a record crop. Gale said the additional production did not come from traditional cherry growers, but from new blocks planted within the last ten years, and production from new plantings will continue to increase. Nurseries are sold out of cherry trees for planting this spring.

“We’ll blow away whatever records we have already set in the last few years-not by 10 percent, but 30 to 50 percent,” he predicted.

Some of the new cherry varieties are more precocious than Bing, and so the plantings come into production sooner. Blocks with old trees that are still being farmed will not be competitive with newer orchards.

Newer orchards will help growers attract labor because they will be more desirable to work in. Growers who have a range of varieties and a longer harvest window will have an advantage.

The ideal dwarfing cherry rootstock has yet to be found, but growers can still plant at high densities. “It doesn’t take a lot of production to pay for every other tree that maybe twelve years down the road you will be taking out,” he said.

Cherry trees don’t need to be kept as small as apple trees, he added, and they need to be kept in good vigor. What growers need to do is reduce the height of the trees and plant them closer so they form a hedgerow so that pruning and harvesting can be done from platforms. Use of scoring and Promalin to promote branching will become more common, as will training and tying of branches, he thinks. Ethrel will be used to promote flowering, and chemical thinning will be developed. Growers will move away from dormant pruning and do more summer pruning to control the vigor. Nutrition will become more important.

With smaller trees, it might be economically feasible to cover orchards to protect them from bird damage, rain, or sunburn, using the trellis poles for support.

New varieties that are better than Bing will dominate, he predicted. “Bing is king, but its kingdom is going to shrink.”

Factors other than size-such as firmness, luster, stem color, and flavor-will become more prominent in the definition of quality, though it’s questionable whether consumers will be prepared to pay more, he said.

Gale expects growers will switch from lugs to bins and do more in-orchard sorting, and he envisions more hydrocoolers even at midsized orchards.