Orchard innovators: Practices should change with mechanization
Dave Weinstock, TJ Mullinax // Sep 1, 2016
A number of growers hosting the 2016 IFTA New York Study Tour said that to get the benefits of new machinery, you have to adjust orchard practices.
Baswell Henry reaches around to finish thinning both sides of a tree planted in the tall spindle tipped (TST) system on a Huron Fruit Systems mechanical platform at Wafler Farms in Wayne County, New York on July 1, 2016. The TST system tips the trees into alternating rows at the top so workers can easily access the tree and fruit from platforms. The tipping also provides greater room at the bottom of the tree so the platforms do less damage to limbs as it glides through the rows. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
For example, Wafler Farms’ mechanical platforms are designed with their own tall spindle tipped system in mind, with 12-foot poles, set 3 feet in the ground and tipped inward 1.5 feet from the base of the pole.
Trees are planted 3 feet apart, alternating 13 feet and 7 feet between rows, with 1,400 trees per acre.
However, they are trained to be narrower at the top — about 18 inches between trees.
They also lean into the 13-foot row. The arrangement tightens the space between the trees and the platform and brings the workers closer to the trees.
Just as in any relationship, the closer you are, the better, Paul Wafler said.
“The tall spindle tipped system places our workers as close to the trees and the fruit as we can get them. If it’s not right in front of them, they can easily reach around the tree to get to it.”
Any variety changes occur in the 7-foot rows. The only traffic the narrower rows get is from mowers and sprayers.
Trees are supported on a two-wire system with a vertical stabilizer wire for each tree.
First year planting of McIntosh trees in the TST system at Wafler Farms in New York. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
Five-year-old McIntosh trees in the TST system at Wafler Farms in New York. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
A cross-wire to the opposite 7-foot row from posts and from every seventh tree helps trees and the trellis structure withstand heavy winds or crop loads.
Wafler favors whips over feathers because he believes they provide superior production in years seven through 25.
“I know they are susceptible to transplant shock. But in those first three years, they’ll grow aggressively and catch up by year five.”
They train their trees in an unconventional manner. “We wrap wires to the trees and then wrap trees to the wires,” he said.
Wafler Farms trains trees by wrapping a wire at the base of the tree when it is young (first year at left) and the tree eventually grows through the wire (fifth year at right). (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
In a tree’s first year, they’ll attach and fold a 12-foot stabilizer wire for each tree over the trellis wires, attaching it at the top with two clips to keep it from sliding down.
Then they’ll wrap the stabilizer wire around the tree loosely, so that it doesn’t girdle it, while still providing support.
At year three, when the central leader grows above the first wire and is below the second, they’ll wrap it around the stabilizer wire three or four times, to provide the upward structure for it to grow toward the second wire.
Secured below the lower wire, with its central leader wrapped around the top wire, the tree begins to fix branches.
When pruning, they’ll lazy cut three to four branches at their extreme ends. “We’ll leave a stub an inch to 3 inches long. We’re looking for a 20-branch equivalent per tree, with stubs counting as branches,” he said.
If crews can put their hands on a tree and touch four to five branches, there are too many in the zone. “We want to be able to touch no more than three,” he said.
Each branch should be singulated: between the trunk and the end of the branch, there should be no forks, Y’s or T’s. The goal is to hang four to six apples per branch to produce about 100 apples per tree.
From late bloom to early June, workers engage in a task Wafler refers to as “stepping back.”
His crews cut branches, leaving lower branches longer and narrowing the tree upward to create a 3-foot width at the bottom and an 18-inch width at the top.
The result is fruit readily visible on the trees throughout the orchard, and with the trees cut and trained as they are, workers can reach all the way around the rows for all tasks, including harvest.
The Waflers measure productivity not only on bins per acre, but also on acres covered. “What we want is for our crews to be able to flow though our orchards, covering as many acres as possible,” Paul Wafler said.
They can do that because they don’t always clean pick their apples. “We’ll come back to the same block and pick it several times before we’re done,” he said. “We spot pick almost 100 percent of our blocks now — not because we need to, but because we can.”
Paul Wafler talks about the TST system in the Good Fruit Grower video below.