Shaanxi, China’s second most important apple-growing region, is in central China bordering Inner Mongolia to the north. The area doesn’t get as much rain as coastal Shandong, nor has it been impacted as much by modern infrastructure. Most of the province’s 38 million people live in the central and southern parts of the province.
The bus ride to orchards on the high plateau in the north of the province was along bumpy, two-lane roads, in contrast to the modern, underutilized expressways of Shandong Province. The scenery switched constantly between orchards, coal mines, corn fields, spectacular vertical cliffs and deep ravines, and industrial complexes belching out smoke.
The pale reddish soil on the plateau is a deep, wind-blown loess, which is used to build clay walls and artificial caves that were originally used as housing but are now also used to store apples.
During an earthquake in 1556, more than 60 percent of the population in some counties were killed when their cave homes in the loess cliffs collapsed. Fruit quality from the orchards on the 3,600-foot-high plateau is reported to be high because of the wide fluctuations between day and night temperatures.
The fruit is reputedly crisper, sweeter, and better colored than apples grown in Shandong. Apples are exported to Holland, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, Russia, and other countries. Though northern Shaanxi is one of the oldest settled regions of China, the apple industry there is relatively young.
Apples have been grown in the region since the late 1980s. Jack Pheasant of East Wenatchee, Washington, said when he visited the area in 1990, many of the hillsides had been denuded of trees, which had been cut down for fuel and cooking. The World Bank helped sponsor reforestation projects, and it was determined that planting apple trees qualified as reforestation.
The province now has a million acres of apple orchard annually producing 5.5 million metric tons of fruit. Rainfall averages 29 inches of rain a year, with most of it typically falling in July through September. However, when the International Fruit Tree Association study group visited orchards in early July, the weather was hot and the orchards were dry. There was little irrigation. Fuji and Gala account for 70 percent of the apple production.
Granny Smith is being grown for high-acid juice. County officials said growers were happy with the returns they were receiving on apples, and they expected apple production might increase in the future. They said Fuji is likely to remain the number-one apple variety, with Gala in second place, but they are also interested in new cultivars, such as Pink Lady and Honeycrisp.
No harmful product
Shaanxi is the most important “no harmful product” production area in China. According to Dr. Yuan Yongbing, professor at Laiyang Agricultural University in Shandong, the “no harmful product” system is similar to integrated pest management, and orchards are certified by the government.
Two years ago, China announced that within five years, all of its major fruit and vegetable production areas should reach the “no harmful product” standard. A special research project was begun to help growers attain this goal through best farming practices. For certification, growers must have their records inspected, and the fruit must be tested for residues of pesticides, fungicides, and heavy metals.
The Chinese agriculture department has also established a “green products” system regulated by the China Green Food Development Center. There are two levels of certification—Level A, which is similar to “no harmful product” and Level AA, which is similar to organic, Yuan said.
Howard Albano, an organic apple grower in California, said while he felt that China was less of a competitive factor for organic apple growers than conventional apple growers in the United States, he thought it would be comparatively easy for Chinese growers to produce organic fruit, since they bag all the apples to protect them from pests and chemical residues, and they appear not to have a codling moth problem.
“There’s no real reason I can see why they should not be organic,” he said. At one of the demonstration orchards that the group visited, new pest control techniques were being tested, including black lights for noctuid pests, though mating disruption was not used.
Tour group leaders noticed leafminers in the orchard. In a paper on fruit production in China, Li Zai-Long, a professor at Zhejiang Agricultural University in Hanzhou, lists peach fruit borer, lesser apple fruit borer, leafroller, mites, and aphids as important pests.
Three pigs per mu
At an “ecological” orchard the group visited, the grower was raising pigs alongside the orchard. Pigs were fed vegetation from the orchard floor, and the pig manure was mixed with collected rainwater and fermented. The resulting methane gas was used in the farmer’s house for lighting and cooking, the fermented liquid was sprayed on the trees to control pests and diseases, and the solids were mixed with grasses and applied as a fertilizer to the ground. This was reported to be economical as well as ecological. About three pigs per mu (18 pigs per acre) were needed.
However, some trees had large, black cankers on the trunks and limbs, and in some cases, inarching had been done to circumvent the affected parts of the trunk. Dr. David Rosenberger, plant pathologist with Cornell University, New York, said he believed the canker was caused by Valsa mala, which is reported to be an important disease organism in Japan, China, and Korea. In Japan, growers placed soil from the orchard on the wound and wrapped it with plastic, he said.
Evidently, there were microorganisms in the soil that counteracted the fungus. That wasn’t being done in China, possibly because of the large number of young trees, Rosenberger noted. Overall, he had expected to see more disease problems in China, he said. “I was surprised that diseases don’t appear to be a major threat. I think it’s because of their wide access to fungicides.”
Shaanxi growers were using Topsin (thiophanate ethyl), mancozeb, Sovran (kresoxim-methyl), and copper fungicides to control leaf spot, which is probably caused by a species of Alternaria. In his paper, Li Zai-Long lists apple tree canker, brown spot, anthracnose, apple ring spot, and powdery mildew as important diseases of apples in China.
Kent Waliser of Pasco, Washington, commented that farmers seem to be steeped in culture, without technological changes, and yet they apply modern pesticides and fungicides with their outmoded equipment. They hand hoe the weeds under the trees, yet they all have cell phones and many have computers. “They’re still stuck back in time. Their application method might be crude and they might use seedling rootstocks, yet they use some of the latest things that are available to use somehow.”
Jack Pheasant of East Wenatchee, Washington, was impressed by tree management in northern Shaanxi. “It’s the first place we’ve come to where you saw some good horticultural practices that resulted in high yields, and we saw high yields all across that plateau. They were managing their vigor very well.”
The soil was deep and fertile. There were canyons hundreds of feet deep with uniform soil all the way down, he noted. “I think they have a real strong fertility, and it’s a matter of being able to maintain that,” he said. However, lack of water seemed to be a concern, and that could affect fruit size, he noted. 37 bins per acre Officials reported that yields in orchards the IFTA group visited were the equivalent of 37 bins per acre, generating income amounting to U.S. $2,250 per acre.
The average yield in the region is half that. Waliser said the trees in northern Shaanxi seemed more balanced and more evenly cropped than those in other regions. Growers seemed to have a better horticultural understanding.
“The net result was it looked like they were doing a real good job,” he said. “You didn’t see as many bad orchards.” Steve Hoying, Extension educator with Cornell University, New York, said he saw trees he thought were outstanding in Shaanxi. “I think they really have a handle on the right way to grow trees.” m