When the Botden family immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands almost 20 years ago, they brought tractors and other equipment with them to start their new orchards in the Georgian Bay region of Canada. But when the equipment broke, there was no one around with the tools or know-how to make repairs, so they opted to invest in their own machine shop, said grower Marius Botden.

The efforts paid off and on the final day of the International Tree Fruit Association’s tour of Ontario, Botden showed attendees an impressive selection of imported and custom-built equipment used on the family’s 450 acres of apples.

An over-the-row recirculating sprayer that covers three rows at a time got everyone’s attention, but a bin train the workers harvest directly into — no picking bags required — to reduce bruising, a custom built picking platform on a tractor chassis, and a trailer for hauling bins with a mechanical arm to lock the bins in place with no straps necessary for the drive were all of great interest to the audience.

Across the road in the orchard, Marius’s son Gerbe Botden showed off his favorite equipment: digital calipers, a counter, and a soil tensiometer.

“That equipment (back at the shop) is useless unless you know how many fruit you’ve got on the trees and what your soil moisture is,” he said. “It’s these indicators that in my opinion let you manage the orchards.”

At the second tour stop, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs horticulture IPM specialist Kristy Grigg-McGuffin discussed the recent phenomenon known as Sudden Apple Decline.

“The name is really fitting because it’s a sudden decline of the tree almost overnight,” she said. In the Ontario region, growers started to see it in 2016, following a cold winter and water stress during the growing season. The sudden collapse occurs primarily on 3- to 8-year-old trees, but it’s been found in a wide variety of scions, rootstocks, and locations. “It’s all hands on deck looking at multiple factors,” Grigg-McGuffin said of a new Canadian task force on the issue.

It’s also been reported in Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, but researchers and growers across the region have differing opinions about the cause. At Penn State, researchers have been investigating the potential role of a new virus, but in Michigan, growers have just assumed that it’s winter injury.

A lively debate followed the presentation.

“I’ve been in extension 41 years and I think it’s totally related to winter damage,” said Michigan State University extension educator Phil Schwallier. “We’re pushing these young trees harder than we’ve ever pushed them and so they are under stress. That sets you up for a disaster and sometimes Mother Nature delivers.”

Grigg-McGuffin agreed that winter injury was probably an important factor, along with the system change that makes trees more susceptible to damage from a variety of abiotic and biotic factors. “I think it’s a complex that’s taking down the trees.”

For the final stop, the IFTA group headed to Chudleigh’s Apple Farm, an agri-entertainment farm just north of Toronto. Famous for their “Apple Blossoms”, small hand pies sold in the freezer section of grocery stores across North America, the Chudleighs started hosting families for the pick your own experience in 1967.

Now, the farm includes a retail store, outdoor restaurant, pick-your own orchards, an adult-sized playground, petting zoo, and lots of space to explore. The vibe is “Grandpa’s backyard” with lots of room to play and explore, spending money and snapping photos for social media in the process.

The delicious apple blossoms were a great way to end a great tour: three days packed with great orchards and great people! Stay tuned for more coverage in coming issues of the Good Fruit Grower.