Trellis System Boosts Apple Growers' Yields

Faster-maturing orchards help farmers to adapt to changes in market demand

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`FARMING isn't like it used to be,'' says apple grower Dale Olsen. ``It was a way of life before. Now it's strictly business.''

The contrast of old and new methods is clear from where he stands on his central Washington property. To his right are rows of apple trees in a traditional orchard. To his left are rows of steel arches, supported by wires. The structure is a trellis that supports apple trees grown from ``dwarfing'' rootstocks.

The trees are not sturdy enough to stand on their own, but they bear fruit at a young age, offering a third-year harvest that would take their larger-trunked cousins six or seven years to match.

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Here in Washington State, where almost half the nation's apples are produced, growers are turning to variants of this trellis system for most new orchards, says researcher Bruce Barritt in Wenatchee, Wash. The trees are planted in high density, up to 1,000 or more trees per acre, about three times the number in a typical orchard. The real advantage of the dwarfing rootstocks, however, is that early fruit-bearing can get new, high-value apple varieties into production sooner. Also, the fruit is easier to pick since it is low to the ground.

``It's a response to a crisis,'' says Mr. Barritt, who is also a Washington State University professor. Barritt says that revenues from the state's key variety of apple, Red Delicious, plummeted from 1987 to 1989 because of overproduction and the scare over the use of the chemical Alar. Growers wanted to get new varieties into production quickly. Barritt estimates that less than 5 percent of the state's apple acres are devoted to high-density production, in part because orchard turnover is only about 2.5 percent a year.

Mr. Olsen, who put in his 20-acre trellis operation this spring, says he has had numerous interested visitors, including apple growers from the East Coast. ``It won't look like an apple tree,'' he says, looking at a plant tied to a wire running a couple of feet off the ground. ``It will be a wall,'' because the small trees are packed so closely together and because branches will be trained along wires at several levels.

The operation looks more like a vineyard than an orchard.

It is also a capital-intensive business. Excluding the cost of land, this system can cost about $18,000 an acre after two years. That includes setting up the trellis, buying trees, and the labor costs of training the branches. Olsen says he has spent about $13,000 an acre since March. Cash flow becomes positive in the trees' third ``leaf'' [year], and rapidly pays off the investment. ``By the fifth leaf we should have paid this off,'' Olsen says.

He will be raising Fuji apples, which fetch a higher price for growers than Red Delicious - about $70 a box versus $14 a box.

Trellis systems also are being developed for other higher-priced apples such as Braeburn and Gala, though prices will likely fall as production rises. If apple prices and yields per acre come in significantly lower than expected, farmers could find themselves waiting much longer than five years to break even.

``I'm in a race against time, ... trying to get as many apples as quickly as possible before we flood the market,'' Olsen says. He points to other parts of his 250-acre fruit orchards where market conditions have changed - such as a section of plums that may no longer be profitable.

``Ten years from now, 15 years from now, it's going to be a whole different ballgame,'' he says. Using rootstocks that yield fruit early allows farmers to adapt in time to take advantage of market shifts, he notes.

For growers who want to try high-density orchards but do not want quite as much financial risk, there are less-expensive trellis systems.

Keller Fruit and Cold Storage Inc. is growing Jonagold apples in the nearby Naches valley using a simpler layout of vertical posts and horizontal wires known as a spindle trellis. But even under that system, the costs are still high, since the trees themselves are the biggest expense.

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