In my lifetime, change has been inevitable: from five-acre orchards to 500-acre orchards or larger; from small, family-owned stores to mega supermarkets; and from local sales to global trade.

Change occurs because someone has a better idea—a way to make it easier, more convenient, more efficient, more attractive, or more flavorful. As long as there are research, innovations, and ideas, change will happen.

My father’s first apple orchard was planted on a 40-foot by 40-foot spacing with peach trees planted between the apple trees. The system then was to grow a large tree with big limbs. Our main varieties were McIntosh, Northern Spy, and striped Red Delicious. None of them were attractive, but all had good flavor. Later, we added Rome Beauty, which were pretty to look at but ate like a cardboard box. We had some Northern Spy trees that had trunks three feet across, and it was a stretch to pick from a 36-foot extension ladder.

Wooden props were commonly placed under heavily cropped limbs, along with wire anchored through the trees to keep limbs from splitting. It’s interesting that now the wire is used in the trellis system to stabilize a whole row instead of one or two oversized branches. We used to burn smudge pots for frost protection, along with some old bales of hay, and an occasional tire thrown in. This was a far cry from starting up the wind machine.

Local labor did all of the harvesting along with family members. Most were small farmers themselves, or had factory jobs and picked apples for extra money. There was no welfare. School kids would come after school and pick up the drops. The apples were picked in wicker three-quarter–bushel baskets with a hook attached to the rung of the ladder. Usually, it would take more than a day for one person to pick a tree, as there were from 100 to 120 bushels per tree. From the orchard, the apples were hand packed in bushel crates. Many buyers would come to the farm, each paying around $2 a bushel. Others were marketed through a broker, and were stacked seven crates high in semi-trucks at the farm by "human forklifts." We didn’t need to go to the gym to work out!

Open to change

Good growers are always open to change, and with research from our universities and Extension, the inspiration of change happens at a steady pace. Ideas that come out of the universities have already had a certain amount of research that makes them more acceptable to growers. One such idea that I would like to explore would be rootstocks and training systems.

Over 50 years ago, Dr. Robert Carlson and Wally Heuser set the foundation for the International Fruit Tree Association, then the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association.

The goal of the organization was to grow a smaller, less vigorous, freestanding tree, and that was accomplished. Training systems then entered the picture, causing change to smaller rootstocks and the vertical axis, slender spindle and the super spindle systems.

Is this the end? No! IFTA is always moving forward. We are in the process of developing a research trust fund/foundation for future projects. We offer annual conferences, summer orchard tours, and educational tours around the world where growers can network with each other.

This year’s annual orchard short tour is in Nova Scotia, August 2–5, with an emphasis on Honeycrisp and traditional eastern varieties along with a number of new varieties. Tours will involve extensive plantings with a wide range of rootstocks and densities. Plans are already under way for the annual conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March 2010. If you are unable to attend these meetings, you can still benefit from the Compact Fruit Tree publication where all the educational talks are printed.

What makes this industry exciting is change. Growers are always looking for a new and improved way of producing a better product in a fast-moving world. 

Ed Wittenbach is a third-generation apple grower in Belding, Michigan. He and his son, Mike, grow 225 acres of apples and 450 acres of corn and soybeans. He has been a member of IFTA since it was founded and is now serving his second, three-year term on the board of directors.