Just shifting the crop towards larger sizes can have a major impact on returns.
Target fruit is a moving target. It changes from grower to grower, block to block, and year to year as the markets evolve.
"You need to be agile; you need to be making changes. You can’t sit still managing orchards, especially in this competitive arena we’re in now," Dain Craver, an organic grower at Royal City, Washington, said during a recent Fruit School on Competitive Orchard Systems.
Economists define target fruit as fruit that returns a profit to the grower after all growing, harvesting, and packing costs are paid.
Craver said target fruit is what the warehouse wants to pack and the retailer and consumers want to buy. He grows 13 different apple varieties and has a set of quality standards for each one of those.
The quality of organic fruit must be as high or higher than conventional fruit, he emphasized. "A lot of people think if you’re an organic grower you can have worms in your apples, but we can’t."
Organic growers have to strive to pick the right fruit. The organic market is smaller than the conventional market, which makes it difficult to sell the ends of the manifest—the very large and small fruit. He aims to grow sizes 80s and 88s.
"Quality is basically one thing: it’s what makes you money."
The f.o.b. structure changes from year to year. This year, the organic apple crop is likely to be a big one, which suggests there will be a lot of small fruit. Craver said he’s already been pruning and using other practices in the orchard with the goal of growing bigger fruit than his neighbor does.
He plans to chemical thin at full bloom, using sulfur, and follow up with hand thinning. On Gala, blossom clusters are removed by hand. It’s at a time of year when there’s not much happening in conventional production, and plenty of workers are available.
To reduce the amount of cullage caused by bruises and stem punctures at harvest, Craver pays most of his pickers by the hour and has them clip the stems. If necessary, the fruit is sorted in the field to remove damage from frost or sunburn.
If the price for organic processor apples is high enough, he will have the processed apples picked first and then harvest the rest of the crop.
Recently, demand for organic apples for fresh slicing has boosted f.o.b. prices for small fruit, he said. Small Gala and Pink Lady apples are particularly sought after.
With the market continually changing, it’s important to consult with your marketer and set goals before the start of the season, he said. "Your market’s going to change. It’s important to always be on the run all the time."
Brent Milne, horticulturist with McDougall and Sons, Wenatchee, Washington, said growing target fruit begins with an analysis of the f.o.b. price curve. "It boils down to what you’re doing in your operation, and being able to hit the sweet spot in the f.o.b. curve."
As an example, Milne talked about one of the company’s Gala blocks—Imperial Gala trained to a double-row modified V-trellis system with 726 trees per acre—that consistently produced small, nontarget fruit.
"We knew from our f.o.b. structure that we needed to be between size 72s and 88s," Milne said.
In 2007, to improve fruit size, more attention was paid to detail pruning, and the block was subject to an aggressive chemical thinning program. Then, Milne compared the 2006 and 2007 packouts using A Grower’s TEAM (Technologies Economic Assessment Model) developed at Oregon State University.
In 2006, the block produced 41 bins per acre, peaking on size 100. In 2007, it produced 44 bins per acre peaking on size 88. The quality of the fruit was comparable both years in terms of grade.
Milne said he could not be sure that the changes in practices were responsible for the size differences because there was no control plot for comparison.
The TEAM analysis showed that just by shifting the crop towards larger sizes, returns were increased by $1,550 per acre. Although the additional pruning and chemical thinning added to the costs, less hand thinning was needed in 2007. "The crew moved through more quickly, and we did save some money on that," he said.
Milne said the TEAM software can be used to track the costs associated with changes in practices as well as to set goals and see if they are viable or not.
He has used it to assess the financial benefits of hypothetical changes in blocks that are not producing target fruit. The program is easy to use and allows growers to change the variables in the budgets to their own actual numbers to do a true analysis, he said.
Milne said internal condition is an important aspect of fruit quality as well as size and grade. If growers aren’t delivering good condition to the packing house, they have fewer possibilities and less flexibility in terms of marketing the fruit.
Tom Butler, with Washington Fruit and Produce Company, Yakima, said good internal condition is a given in target fruit because it must be able to survive the distribution system. "If you don’t have fruit quality, it doesn’t matter what your packout is. If you can’t get it through the system, it’s not going to be worth anything." The Fruit School was presented by Washington State University Extension and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.