family background/Michelle is the first generation in her family in agriculture. She grew up in Dryden, Ontario, obtaining her master’s degree at University of Guelph and now is a tree fruit specialist doing farm extension services. She is the daughter of Charmon MacDonald and Marcel Arseneault.
grower/Kentville, Nova Scotia, Canada
business/Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc.

Michelle Cortens, a young grower and tree fruit specialist at Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc., and originally from Dryden, Ontario, Canada, on July 25, 2018. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)How did you get your start?
When I was younger, I enjoyed planting and harvesting, even though my parents weren’t really involved in farming. In high school, I was involved with a competition where I was the soil specialist on the team.

The town where I grew up was a forestry community, so I was interested in plants, but more interested in foods. I learned things like how texture, aggregation and other properties can affect plant growth.

It was fun, so when I started looking into universities, I was drawn toward University of Guelph’s agriculture program. I was thinking there would always be important jobs in ag and opportunities for me to make a difference.

What did you pursue in college?
In my fourth-year of university, I took a course on fruit crops and it resonated with me. We went on a lot of tours in the field to see the orchards and hear from growers. Because of that, I decided to get a Master of Science in apples.

The professor I worked with had a focus on thinning and I developed a passion for this subject, eventually studying why trees abort fruit.

This topic is particularly timely for growers because they’re actively modifying their crop load, so they can grow high-quality fruit. I wanted to find ways growers could better manage their thinning practices.

What is your growing area like?
The growers that I work with are mostly located in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. We have a range of farm sizes, with some about 400 acres down to 1-acre hobby farms.

Our growers produce about 50 percent Honeycrisp. We get cool weather in the fall, which helps the apples develop a beautiful red color.

Honeycrisp is a very high-value variety that has a lot of challenges to grow successfully. Some of those challenges are a tendency to become bi-annual bearing — which means one year there’s a high crop load and the next has a very low crop load.

It also is prone to developing bitter pit, which we don’t have that much of in Nova Scotia. In our area, we generally allow the tree to grow through its first three years without fruit on it. That way the vigor from the tree goes into growing the main leader to the top wire of the system so it can fill its space.

If you crop it any sooner, it could shut down tree growth. Most of the new plantings are high-density and resemble a fruiting wall.

How did you get your start in the industry?
When I started my position with Perennia, growers were in harvest and I had a chance to go out and ask farmers how the harvest was going. Every now and then someone would pull me aside and point out they have some trees dying — and this is where I’d get really interested.

At that time, I remember pulling up the trees to look at the roots and they were really fibrous, and not very healthy because there was a lot of branching on it, which is abnormal. They didn’t have a lot of white root growth with the feeder roots which provide a lot of nutrition to the tree.

These plants were taken to a pathologist who identified high levels of nematode populations nibbling on the root systems. These pest injuries also allowed for pathogens to enter the tree, eventually leading to tree deaths. I’ve been working on this problem, called replant disease, since I arrived.

It’s a huge issue and the organisms playing a role in the disease are sometimes different in every region. I’m learning about our farms in Nova Scotia, looking for those that’ve been affected and working on a solution for this problem.

What do you think may be a solution?
I’ve been hearing about some interesting approaches to this problem, such as using compost from brassicas cut crops, that when they are incorporated in the soil they release a gas that can damage the nematode population. It’s been really interesting looking at the research and seeing what can be applied to the orchards in Nova Scotia.

As a first-generation young grower, what do you think about ag?
I feel the tree fruit industry is very open for career opportunities. I really want to help growers provide high-quality fruit because it’s a great challenge. Growers always are looking to find better ways of doing things.