Trees are tied to wires using short sections of rubber tubing.
While many of the fruit-farming families on Fruit Ridge are into their sixth generation, there’s still opportunity for newcomers, says Mark Zemaitis, as he casts his eyes toward open fields with slopes that look ideal for fruit.
Zemaitis is farm manager at Riveridge Land Company, a subsidiary of Riveridge Produce Marketing, which packs and wholesales a third of Michigan’s fresh apple crop. In 1994, it bought 40 open acres to plant to apples and nine years later formed the subsidiary that Zemaitis manages.
The farm now includes about 400 acres, mostly apples, but a new game plan has led them to plant 12 acres of sweet cherries, some plums, and four acres of blueberries. They purchased high tunnels last year and covered an acre, and filled the tunnels with raspberries. Strawberries may be added in the future. It’s completely unlike the wholesale marketing enterprise of the parent company.
“We don’t have a name for it yet, but we’re planning to open a pick-your-own farm market next year,” Zemaitis said. “The traffic on this road is unbelievable, it’s phenomenal.” It won’t be the first farm market in the area, but it will be among the first with pick-your-own sweet cherries and the first with raspberries under protective cover.
“This road” he refers to is Fruit Ridge Avenue, which runs north from Grand Rapids. Fruit Ridge is an old fruit-growing area, by Michigan standards, dating back more than a century and a half. Today, it’s crowded with orchards, mostly apples, many of them new high-density plantings. The area, 20 miles long and eight wide, produces more than half of Michigan’s annual 20-million-bushel apple crop.
A few years ago, when a fruit-growing career looked less promising, some good sites were sold for high-end homes. Now, the steam has gone out of real estate, and enterprises like farm markets serve the newcomers.
Since buying the first 40 acres of bare land, the company has been buying or leasing land already in fruit and rejuvenating orchards as needed, Zemaitis said. Last winter, he hosted visitors on an International Fruit Tree Association tour and showed off the orchard design that seems to be taking the area by storm.
The new plantings are tall spindle, with trees three feet apart in rows ten feet apart on four-wire trellis and trickle-irrigated. Most of the soils are clay-loam, and irrigation is not usually used on these high-vigor sites. But with 1,400 trees per acre, such new plantings on the Ridge are irrigated.
At the close spacing, vigor control comes through using rootstocks like M.9 Nic 29, tying down limbs in the first two years, renewal pruning to remove one to three of the largest limbs every year, and early cropping. Tree height is about nine feet.
“The ten-foot alleys are pretty narrow, but we think it’s doable,” Zemaitis said. “Tall spindle takes a lot more tender loving care the first couple of years, but we think it will pay off later with lower pruning costs, better light penetration, better spray coverage, and, hopefully, better quality and yield.”
Until the freezes this spring, they were on track to get 150 bushels per acre in their second leaf and triple that next year, he said. “Freezes make life difficult. We depend on cropping to keep the trees under control, and when we lose the crop, we have to do other things, like spraying with Apogee