Workers at Orchard View Farms tie cherry trees to the wire for training to the new Upright Fruiting Offshoots system.
Workers at Orchard View Farms tie cherry trees to the wire for training to the new Upright Fruiting Offshoots system.

Growers working with the new Upright Fruiting Offshoots cherry training system are quickly learning some of the ins and outs of the system, especially how important it is to get trees and shoots in the right position from the start.

The UFO system is a novel concept for most cherry growers, who traditionally have grown freestanding trees and not dealt much with wires and support structures like their apple-growing counterparts. The UFO, developed by Dr. Matt Whiting in Washington State University research orchards about five years ago, is already being tested in cherry regions throughout the world—Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Turkey—as well as in the United States by a few commercial growers in Washington and Oregon.

Three Pacific Northwest growers discussed their ­experiences with the system during the Cherry Institute meeting held in Yakima, Washington.

Mark Hanrahan of Zillah, Washington, probably has the most commercial experience of any with the UFO ­system, as some of his trees will be fifth leaf this spring. Varieties planted are Early Robin on Gisela 6 rootstock, Rainier on G.5, and Santina on G.5. Average yields in the fourth-leaf blocks were between 4 and 5.5 tons per acre. He estimated that average yields would be between 7.5 and 10 tons per acre by the fifth leaf.

The planar dimension of the UFO system has allowed him to experiment with the mechanical Darwin string thinner for blossom thinning, and he’s also tried a hand-held thinning device being developed by WSU’s Dr. Qin Zhang.

Hanrahan sees great potential with the UFO system. In a comparison of harvest costs between freestanding sixth leaf Early Robin/Mazzard and fourth leaf UFO Early Robin/G. 6, he said workers picked an average of nearly 68.5 pounds of fruit per hour in the UFO compared with 39 pounds per hour in the freestanding block. More importantly, the UFO system had a lower picking cost of 22 cents per pound compared with 28 cents in the ­freestanding system.

“With the UFO, you can’t procrastinate,” he said. “You’ve got to get it right from the beginning and stay on top of training and other tasks.” He also said that growers need a plan for dealing with bull suckers, an issue he’s struggling with.

Tunneled UFO

Tom Thornton, owner of Cloud Mountain Farm in Everson, near Bellingham, Washington, is using the UFO system for cherry trees under tunnels in a research and development project. Cloud Mountain, a Puget Sound retail nursery and farm, sells apples, pears, stone fruit, and table grapes through direct market channels. “Because I’m selling cherries at retail prices, every piece of fruit that I can pick and sell has value,” Thornton said, adding that he hopes to manage excess water (rain) with the tunnels.

Burlat cherries, now in their fourth leaf, were his initial UFO guinea pigs, but he has since planted others, including Rainier and Regina, all on G.5 rootstock. He plants on a 30-degree angle and scored the buds only in the upper half of the tree. Upright shoots are grown along the ­horizontal scaffold, spaced about every 10 to 12 inches. He makes dormant pruning cuts on the side shoots.

The tunnel roof and walls go up in mid-February, and all four sides and the roof can be rolled up for airflow. Thornton is working on developing a retractable roof for the tunnel. The tunnel provides protection from frost and rain and should hasten maturity. He hopes to start ­picking cherries by the end of May.

Thornton said he still has much to learn about the system but is excited so far. “For us, the UFO system is trainable and repeatable, and after the first year, pruning and training is very systematic—a ten-year-old could manage it.” He likes the pedestrian-style trees and believes it will allow more efficient fruit picking, with better packouts and better size.

UFO on the Y

Orchard View Farms at The Dalles, Oregon, planted about an acre of cherries last year on a Y orchard system. Trees are trained to the UFO system, which works in either vertical or Y trellis systems. Eric Shrum, horticultural and orchard manager for Orchard View, said that the cherry grower-packer company is experimenting with the Y and UFO to see how the systems work under growing conditions in The Dalles and on their sloping ground.

“In the big picture, we want to be able to maintain our competitive advantage in the future,” said Shrum. “We wanted to see what we could do with the technology that’s available now, and see how they could fit in our growing system, with our knowledge and in our farm.”

Shrum planted Skeena on G.6 in April 2010, on 3 feet by 16 feet spacing. Feathers were removed from the trees at planting. Shrum said they waited until mid-June to tie down the trees to the wire and used black tape because of the wind. Wires run parallel down the two sides of the Y, with trees tied alternately to either side.

Shrum said he hopes to reach eight to ten tons per acre on the Y-UFO system when trees are in peak production. Thus far, he’s had good growth, but bull suckers are already showing up and he’s not sure what to do with them—remove or train? He’s also noticed that some spur thinning may be needed in the future in some of the trees that are well spurred.

“What I’ve learned so far? Don’t miss a step in the beginning,” Shrum said, adding that tree training is very important. “This is an unforgiving system if you’re not right on it. As cherry growers, we’re not used to working with trellis systems like the apple guys are.”

The Upright Fruiting Offshoots system is based on a trellis system with trees planted at an angle and the trunk growing horizontally along the first trellis wire, with shoots trained upright. As the canopy develops into a fruiting wall, the upright shoots are periodically renewed. Both Hanrahan and Orchard View Farms are providing in-kind collaboration to the nationwide research project “Total Systems Approach to Developing a Sustainable, Stem-free Sweet Cherry Production, Processing, and Marketing System,” a four-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.