Tom Ferri has a quirky sense of humour when he compares his gnarled apple trees with the fruiting walls of his high-density orchard.
“This is Jurassic Park,” he says, expertly twisting apples from atop a ladder in his old orchard. “We’re only getting 25 bins to the acre and besides, it’s a safety hazard being on ladders.”
Ferri’s reference is to the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie of Jurassic Park where dinosaurs run amok in a theme park. Not everyone would agree with him but it’s his metaphor for aging trees with old varieties that are handpicked. In the last decade, growers from coast to coast have transformed production practices, adopted harvesting aids and entered a New Precision Age.
Ferri and his wife Karen now manage 22 acres near Clarksburg, Ontario in an exceptionally dense orchard of 2,500 to 3,000 trees to the acre. He first saw the super spindle system in British Columbia back in the late 1990s and planted his own orchard in 2002. Since then, the gains have been multifold. Smaller acreage is required and full production is reached sooner. Rather than 25 bins to the acre, they are obtaining 50 to 55 bins per acre of high-quality apples. Perhaps the biggest benefit is less labour.
“We can use more automation,” says Ferri. “There’s easier management of crop load and lower use rates of crop protection products because the foliage is less dense.”
It’s not been without considerable investment. Establishment costs of $45,000 per acre and more are table stakes for converting to high-density. If Ferri had to change anything, he would have planted at 18-inch spacings rather than 18-24 inches. Why? For even more yield.
“The industry has matured with a new generation of growers,” says Charles Stevens, chair of Ontario Apple Growers. “Ontario has a long way to catch up with high-density systems of a thousand trees and more to the acre. But in the future, it’s a certainty that robots will be picking apples in high-density orchards.”
Abundant Robotics will be testing a prototype this fall in Washington state. Chief executive and co-founder Dan Steere says it’s difficult to locate and identify mature fruit within a canopy and then pick it without turning it into applesauce. Unlike other competitive technologies such as claws or graspers, Abundant uses a vaccum to pull the apple from the branch.
None of that near-term technology would be possible if orchards weren’t precision-planted to the inch. As in Tom Ferri’s orchard, the new architecture is vertical rather than horizontal, where apples are trained to reach for the sky as quickly as possible.
What used to be a low-capital industry now requires high inputs, Charles Stevens points out. And the risks have amplified. New apple varieties are coming on stream but there’s a downside if consumers don’t catch on to the new variety.
Globalization has brought new varieties to the fore such as New Zealand’s Jazz apples and the United States’ Rave apples. Those trends are resulting in decreased demand for varieties such as Golden Delicious. Canada, as a whole, is an importer of apples, bringing in 109 million kilograms more than it exports. The opportunity for Canadian growers is to expand their own domestic market and reduce imports.
British Columbia, for instance, must compete with Washington, the largest producer of apples in the U.S. Members of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA) have been aggressively replanting under a successful provincial assistance program. The estimate for this season’s crop is for a 3.6 million bushel crop, led by 1.6 million bushels of Gala and 820,000 bushels of Ambrosia – two of the top-ranked consumer favourites.
“Our apple industry is growing by acreage,” says Fred Steele, chair, BCFGA. “After 32 years of decline, we’ve seen increases in the last three to four years. We have one grower with apples specifically for the cider industry.”
Steele has not been shy in pointing out that success to federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay. “We’re now growing apples in six provinces including the minister’s own Prince Edward Island riding,” says Steele. As a member of the Canadian Horticultural Council’s (CHC) Apple Working Group, Steele is advocating for a national replant program that would suspend the interest costs on replanting expenses for five years until trees come into full production. If implemented, the program would alleviate costs of $6,000 to $7000/acre.
“We’ve created the optimism,” says Steele, “and that’s a feeling that’s contagious.”
That government assistance is needed to accelerate the transition to high-density orchards. Without it, growers will be hard pressed to make the changes, especially as labour costs escalate rapidly.
“Transition is essential,” says Brian Gilroy, chair of the CHC Apple Working Group, “or growers will exit the business.”