Guy Ligonniere, right, shows the small bin trailers used during harvest. French apple breeder Joris Nicolleau is on the left.
At Davodeau-Ligonniere, a vertically integrated grower-nursery-packer, great emphasis is placed on profitability. Varieties planted in their commercial orchards must be moneymakers or they are replaced.
French growers are always looking for new varieties, said Guy Ligonniere, head of D-L, which has a nursery, orchard, and two packing houses near Angers, France, and its knip tree nursery near Chartres. "The French are lucky because they have many climates to grow a lot of different varieties," he said, adding that early and long growing-season varieties are grown in southern France with later-season ones grown in the north.
On the nursery side, D-L produces about three million rootstocks annually, most of which are Malling 9, and about one million one-year-old and two-year-old trees. On the grower-packer side, the company packs about 6,000 tons (300,000 bushels) of fruit each year from a total of about 100 hectares (250 acres). In France, 100 hectares is considered a sizable area as most growers have orchards ranging from 15 to 40 hectares.
The majority of the trees in the D-L orchards are from seven to nine years old. Obsolete varieties are replaced with newer, more productive ones, Ligonniere said. Ten years ago, they replaced all of their Imperial Gala trees with Brookfield Gala. Both replanting new trees and grafting are used to change varieties.
Labor is very expensive in France—more expensive than in most other European Union countries, he noted. In his view, there are only three ways to make money at fruit production in France. A grower needs good yields, high packouts, and membership in a club or managed variety.
"Our goal is to have half of our orchards in a club within the next five years," Ligonniere said, noting that club varieties currently make up 35 percent of their acreage. "We’re replanting only varieties that we think are good, productive ones, and are resistant to scab."
It’s expensive to change varieties, but poor packouts are also expensive, Ligonniere said. "We aim for packouts of 80 to 90 percent."
Their three main varieties are Gala (70 percent Brookfield Gala), Jazz, and Braeburn. Minor varieties they grow include club varieties, such as the scab-resistant Antarès (Dalinbel) and Choupette (Dalinette), and RosyGlo, which is part of the Pink Lady club.
"You need at least 60 bins per acre to be productive," he said. By planting well-feathered trees—at least five feathers or branches for a one-year-old nursery tree or seven feathers for a knip tree—apple production should reach 25 to 30 bins per acre in the second year, 35 to 40 in the third, and 45 to 50 in the fourth year.
They plant trees in February, with the objective of not pruning anything until the third leaf. "But you need to plant nice trees to do this," he stressed. Trees are tied to wires to create a wall and trained to the central axis. Tree density is around 1,400 per acre, and trees are planted about 30 inches apart with 11.5 feet between rows. Drip irrigation and hail nets are used.
They consistently achieve good packouts for Brookfield—usually around 90 percent, and in one pick, he said. A sixth-leaf Brookfield block yielded 65 bins per acre.
Braeburn is productive, producing 75 to 80 bins per acre in the D-L blocks, but the fruit can get too big for their markets. "We have problems in general with Braeburns," Ligonniere said, adding that they often have to quality thin in late August even after chemical thinning was previously done.
While grower returns for Honeycrunch (Honeycrisp) are good, he worries about poor packouts. "We tried one hectare of Honeycrunch, but we won’t be planting anymore," Ligonniere said, citing several problems with the variety, such as biennial bearing, bitter pit, scald, and fruit that is too large for certain markets. "What happens when the price drops and you still have the same low packouts?" he wondered.
In France, Jazz (Scifresh) apples are smaller and usually require three picks, but for Ligonniere, it is the "best apple in the world" because of its consistent eating quality.
About 35 orchardists grow Jazz in France, with most located in the Loire Valley, according to Ligonniere. Some acreage has been planted in England. Growers pay 3,000 euros (U.S.$3,900) per hectare to join the club before planting and must also pay tree royalties and a marketing fee for each kilogram of fruit shipped.
With emphasis in many breeding programs on disease resistance, scab-resistant varieties are becoming more available, although several have been released as club varieties. Spraying for scab is not eliminated with scab-resistant apples, but the number of sprays needed is greatly reduced.
Normal scab-management programs in France involve spraying every week, beginning in February until July, Ligonniere said. "With scab-resistant varieties, you spray only two to three times compared to 20 times, and the timeliness of your sprays is not as critical. If you’re on holiday, the spraying can wait a few days, unlike varieties that are sensitive to scab."