Kyle Wafler of Wafler Farms in Wolcott, New York, explains the tall spindle tip, the family’s own orchard design that tilts each row in opposing directions, at the IFTA conference and tours in February in Rochester, New York. They believe the orchard system works better with their platforms, which they also designed themselves. High-density orchards that accept mechanization are the direction for New York’s apple industry, trying to wean itself further from reliance on processing. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Kyle Wafler of Wafler Farms in Wolcott, New York, explains the tall spindle tip, the family’s own orchard design that tilts each row in opposing directions, at the IFTA conference and tours in February in Rochester, New York. They believe the orchard system works better with their platforms, which they also designed themselves. High-density orchards that accept mechanization are the direction for New York’s apple industry, trying to wean itself further from reliance on processing. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

The apple growers along New York’s southern shore of Lake Ontario, where half the fruit goes to processing, are embracing change, planting high densities of new varieties, preparing their orchards for mechanization and sometimes inventing their own tools to move the needle further toward the fresh market.

“You have to change,” said Matt Wells of New York Apple Sales. “Complacency equals failure.”

Wells and numerous other presenters and organizers pleaded with growers to seek change, with some urgency, at the annual International Fruit Tree Association’s conference and tours in Rochester, New York, in February.

Mario Miranda Sazo of Cornell University discusses multileader trees at Excelsior Farms in Kent, New York. Behind him is Roger Bannister, the farm owner, who is removing vertical axe blocks and replacing them with trees trained to two, three or four leaders. Miranda Sazo was selected for the Outstanding Extension award at the IFTA conference. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Mario Miranda Sazo of Cornell University discusses multileader trees at Excelsior Farms in Kent, New York. Behind him is Roger Bannister, the farm owner, who is removing vertical axe blocks and replacing them with trees trained to two, three or four leaders. Miranda Sazo was selected for the Outstanding Extension award at the IFTA conference. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

With detailed price estimates, Wells made a financial plea for growers in his state to modernize or leave money hanging from the branches. “There’s money in the maze,” he said, referencing the 1998 book “Who Moved My Cheese.” “It’s out there, you just have to go get it every day.”

For example, using 2018 return statistics, shifting a Honeycrisp packout from 70 percent to 80 percent and the percentage of apples packed in a tray as opposed to a bag from 60 percent to 70 percent bumps up returns per bin from $579 to $680.

“So, serious money here,” he said.

Growers throughout the region are adopting his advice. Everywhere apples hang on young, planar hedges with branches 2 feet apart within 10-foot rows, or somewhere near those measurements. And many growers are not afraid of trying their own paths toward change.

International Fruit Tree Association tourgoers discuss hail netting and plant growth regulator trials at Cherry Lawn Fruit Farms in Sodus, New York, in February. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

International Fruit Tree Association tourgoers discuss hail netting and plant growth regulator trials at Cherry Lawn Fruit Farms in Sodus, New York, in February. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Take Kyle Wafler, a third-generation grower, and his family. In 2010, the owners of Wafler Farms in Wolcott, east of Rochester, developed their own orchard architecture called tall spindle tip, planting spindle trees at opposing angles with a deflection of 1.5 feet for 11-foot trees.

They have found their harvest and work platforms work better when the trees lean just a little inward, Wafler said.

The tops of each row are always 10 feet apart, meaning the floors have alternating wide and narrow rows. Workers run the platforms down every other alleyway, reaching through the skinny canopy to pick and prune the opposite side.

A grower inspects the leaning trees of Wafler Farms’ tall spindle tip orchard. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

A grower inspects the leaning trees of Wafler Farms’ tall spindle tip orchard. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

The Waflers are also known for using on-platform cameras to monitor quality and employee efficiencies, designing their own orchard platforms through their company, Huron Fruit Systems, and their nursery.

At Fowler Farms, just a few miles south, managers are working with Helena Agri Enterprise on variable fertilizer rate trials to amend soil with more precision, accounting for the rolling topography. At Excelsior Farms, west of Rochester in Kent, New York, Roger and Christine Bannister are in the process of replacing all their vertical axe trees with multileaders.

Against a backdrop of undulating topography, Andrew Wright of Helena Agri Enterprise, left, and Terence Robinson of Cornell University discuss variable rate fertilizer at Fowler Farms in Wolcott. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Against a backdrop of undulating topography, Andrew Wright of Helena Agri Enterprise, left, and Terence Robinson of Cornell University discuss variable rate fertilizer at Fowler Farms in Wolcott. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Technology

Meanwhile, everybody is eyeing technology and mechanization.

For example, Michael Sadler, a farm manager from Lyndonville, New York, has invested in a pollen blower to improve fruit set and has affectionately nicknamed it “The Inseminator.”

George Kantor of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute encouraged growers who are anxious for robots to save them from labor shortages to similarly invest in mechanical tools already available and collaborate with companies trying to perfect more.

 Tourgoer Mauricio Frias sketches diagrams of multileader trees at Excelsior Farms in Kent, New York. Owners Roger and Christine Bannister are removing vertical axe blocks and replacing them with trees trained to two, three or four leaders. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Tourgoer Mauricio Frias sketches diagrams of multileader trees at Excelsior Farms in Kent, New York. Owners Roger and Christine Bannister are removing vertical axe blocks and replacing them with trees trained to two, three or four leaders. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Tech companies have made leaping strides in the mobility and perception legs of the robotic stool but are still getting there on manipulation — the point where robots actually touch and move fruit and plants, such as the robotic harvesters under development by Abundant Robotics and FFRobotics, said Kantor, who presented the IFTA’s annual Robert Carlson Lecture.

“The technologies are here, but they’re not going to necessarily make it into your corner of the world unless you help bring (them) in,” he said.

A low-tech method of keeping deer at bay at Orchard Dale Fruit Co. in Waterport, New York. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

A low-tech method of keeping deer at bay at Orchard Dale Fruit Co. in Waterport, New York. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Processing still pertinent

All this change is happening in a region where the processing industry is still relevant.

New York growers send about 52 percent of their apples to processing, compared to Washington’s 18 percent, according to Cornell University researchers. The state is home to six processors, the biggest of which is Mott’s, a subsidiary of Dr Pepper Snapple Group in Plano, Texas. Mott’s New York apple processing facility is located in Williamson in Wayne County, east of Rochester, where growers send nearly 60 percent of their apples to processing.

“Yes, we still have some big trees and the reason why is because they’re still making us money,” said Todd Furber. He and his brother, Ted Furber, who together manage Cherry Lawn Fruit Farms in Sodus, send about 70 percent of their apples fresh, but have other varieties and blocks they would remove before they tear out their processing-only Idareds. Those trees produce.

“If we’re going to play the process game, we gotta have yields,” he said.

Brothers and partners, Todd Furber, left, and Ted Furber, explain some of their plant growth regulator and hail net trials at Cherry Lawn Fruit Farms in Sodus, New York. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Brothers and partners, Todd Furber, left, and Ted Furber, explain some of their plant growth regulator and hail net trials at Cherry Lawn Fruit Farms in Sodus, New York. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Mott’s takes in about 7 million bushels of apples each year, almost exclusively from their pool of 165 New York growers, said Gary Orbaker, a fourth-generation Wayne County grower.

Some growers still plant new orchards solely for processing, with semidwarf trees 10 feet apart, as opposed to the 2-foot spacing found in so many new trellised orchards.

Green fiberglass rods support the tips of young Honeycrisp trees at VanDeWalle Farms in Sodus, New York. Owner Scott VanDeWalle uses them on less vigorous varieties such as Evercrisp and SweeTango. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Green fiberglass rods support the tips of young Honeycrisp trees at VanDeWalle Farms in Sodus, New York. Owner Scott VanDeWalle uses them on less vigorous varieties such as Evercrisp and SweeTango. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Some growers simply like working with processed apples, which are cheaper to grow, while others are trying to shift gradually as they can afford to purchase trellises and higher-performing rootstocks, Orbaker said. Although, some might try to speed up that transition after 2018, when prices fell by an average of 2.5 cents per pound to less than the cost of production, he said.

That was an unusual year, but the trend is going toward fresh as growers look for ways to make the rising costs of production, namely labor, pay off. “It’s getting harder to grow the apples for the processing market, for sure,” he said. •

—by Ross Courtney

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