US growers share experience at IFTA

Contents of this article were sourced from GrowingProduce.com, the aggregate site of American/Western Fruit Grower, American Vegetable Grower, and Florida Grower magazines. Find the original articles by Christina Herrick here and here.

ifta tree conference

Roger Bannister’s multileader trees planted in 2015 are seen here at Excelsior Farms. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

The International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) held its conference on February 24-28. Topics ranged across mechanization, hedging, fruiting walls, and rootstocks, all with an eye to the future. For field demonstrations, the IFTA conference visited orchards in New York state in the US.

Throughout the conference, growers from around the world commented on rootstocks, grafting, mechanisation, and more.

On-Farm Experiments Fruitful for New York Apple Growers

Growers are taking risks, and nowhere is that better seen than at Orchard Dale Fruit Farm in Waterport, NY. Eighth-generation grower Bobby Brown talked about the trials and errors he and his family faced with beaver grafting and side grafting. Beaver grafts, or notching, are deep angled cuts in the trunk below the nursing limbs to give a better spacing to the new leaders.

“This is more of a large trial,” Brown says. “It’s a slow learning curve how to figure out a larger graft. It’s not pretty, but you just marry it with the tree. You kind of make it up as you go.”

Nurse limbs are essential with beaver grafts. Without them you can risk flooding out the graft. Brown said winter damage hit the beaver grafts hard, with about 30 per cent losses in first year. But, his side grafts had about 70 per cent take.

Grower Roger Bannister says he followed the advice of Alberto Dorigoni — from the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige in Italy’s South Tyrol province — on supporting his GPS-planted trees approximately 1.5 metres apart, with leaders 45 centimetres apart. Row spacing is about 2.6 metres wide.

Pruning for Bannister is “four fingers,” which is leaving wood that’s just about four fingers long.

“When they’re fruitful, they’re set,” he says.

One thing Bannister cautions growers is that it’s “Very important to get things done when they need to get done.”

For example, Bannister says in his system branches need to be tied down, but if they’re not done at the proper time, the response is different.

At Kast Farms in Albion, NY, Plant Geneticist Gennaro Fazio cautioned growers to go in “whole-hog” with a new rootstock.

“My recommendation if you have an inkling is buy a few trees and put on your farm in a representative place to find out where and specifically if the rootstock will work,” he says. “You really need to gauge what the rootstock potential is before you can make a decision.”

Fazio says, above all, spacing is critical for each individual rootstock. Otherwise, growers risk losing productivity.

ifta tree conference

Bobby Brown Orchard Dale Fruit Company explains the process of making a beaver graft. A crucial step in this process is to have a nurse limb, so the tree does not go into shock and there’s a risk of flooding out the graft. ‘Minneiska’ was grafted on M.9 planting from 1990. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Maximizing Productivity

When yields started to plateau for the Zingler family in Kendall, NY, both Mike and his son Jimmy knew they had to do something. After Jimmy attended an IFTA summer tour in Washington and saw Auvil Fruit Co.’s formal 2-D system, the Zinglers thought this might be the solution.

Leaders are trained with twine, which is cost-effective and easy to install. While the training is more labor-intensive and may be more of an investment at the start, Jimmy Zingler says “after it’s established, there’s so many efficiencies” including ease of pruning. The 7-wire system leaves the bottom wire to allow workers to be able to pass through if needed. And, crews can pick from one side.

This system was selected specifically to improve labor efficiency, increase yields and fruit quality, and make a move toward a system that could work for robotics in the future.

“I was never a fan of fencing people out of rows,” Mike Zingler explains. “Accessibility is a brick wall for me.”

Jose Iniguez and Jason Woodworth of Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, NY, use bud counting to pinpoint their orchard production.

“Everything we do is to set up the canopy,” Woodworth said.

Woodworth and Iniguez hedge their orchards and were hitting around 70 apples per tree. But, they wondered what would happen if they were more in the 62 to 63 apples range, and what that would do to the operation’s bottom line.

“We leave more apples on the tree, it’s more precise and we get better quality. The cost of production hasn’t changed much,” Woodworth said. “But the cost to start earlier has led to more dollars and cents on the other end [at harvest]. It’s the same 70 apples, just different growing conditions.”

Kind Words for the Next Generation

“It’s so vital that we involve young people,” Mike Zingler says at the end of his family’s tour stop. “If you’ve got a young person, I urge you to give them a chance.”

Zingler, first-generation grower, says it’s vital that the industry takes a chance on this next generation of growers, just as someone took a chance on him and it comes full circle as his son, Jimmy, in turn has help further the family’s operation.

“He’s brought so much to the business,” Mike Zingler says. “It opens up the world of new ideas.”

“If you’re young, show ’em what you can do.”

ifta tree conference

Young Professionals gathered during a pre-conference reception before the start of the 2019 IFTA Conference in Rochester, NY. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Robots, Rootstocks and Revenue on the Front Burner for Fruit Growers

“We are never going to have a drop-in for humans in agriculture in our lifetime,” said George Kantor of Carnegie Mellon University.

Instead of developing a robot to emulate humans, Kantor said, researchers are “developing a box of tools and people need to learn how to use the tools.”

These tools fall into three categories: sensing and perception, mobility, and manipulation. Each category is a specific milestone to automation, each with its own set of unique challenges. The simpler the mechanization, the easier the device is to implement into the orchard.

Kantor is involved in a current mechanical pruning project where the deep neural network (also known as artificial intelligence) will learn how the pruners make a decision to cut.

For mechanical harvesting, he said the systems can only see what the human eye sees, for example in yield estimation, “we cannot count the apples you can’t see.”

As quickly as things are changing and evolving in production, Mario Miranda Sazo of Cornell University said growers need to focus on getting better light interception into the canopy to prepare for a wave of digital agriculture.

“Things are moving very fast,” he said. “We have to solve the issues right from the get-go.”

This means growers need to make good decisions on their orchard to begin with to prepare for the next step in automation.

ifta tree conference

Tour goers got the chance to see a mechanical hedger in action. This one is from LaGasse Works. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Rootstocks

Looking at how orchard systems and rootstocks come together, Terence Robinson of Cornell University noted that one thing that struck him was the explosion of Geneva rootstocks. There is a change happening in the market, he said, noting “there is no market” for traditional varieties.

“Consumers like the taste of new varieties,” he said.

Robinson strongly encouraged growers to opt for more robust rootstocks that will fill the space in the next two to three years.

“We just can’t afford to plant small roots,” he said. “I’m so tired of walking into an orchard in third leaf and see it is low yielding. Find the variety that will give you high returns.”

Stefano Muscacchi of Washington State University said that before growers plant any rootstocks, a soil analysis is critical. Because not all rootstocks respond the same way to different soil types.

“If you don’t do an analysis of your soil, you don’t know where you want to go,” he said. “You have to know what you’re working with.”

Building upon the concept that rootstock impacts yield and nutrient uptake, Lee Kalcsits of Washington State University said growers can improve calcium balance and decrease fruit size with rootstock choice.

 

APAL’s Technical Manager Angus Crawford attended IFTA. For questions or clarifications, contact him at acrawford@apal.org.au

 

About the Author:

APAL is an industry representative body and not-for-profit membership organisation that supports Australia’s commercial apple and pear growers.