Young Growers See Evolving Orchard Production on Cornell Tour
For young growers, orchard tours can be a chance to pick up ideas on how to improve their own operations and see how other orchards operate. It’s also a chance to network with young people in a similar situation and of a similar age. That’s exactly why Cornell Cooperative Extension organized a Next Generation study tour. This is the second year for the tour, which took young growers to the Champlain region of New York State and Vermont.
Matt Wells, formerly of Cornell Cooperative Extension and now of New York Fruit Sales, helped organize this year’s tour, which he says was immensely popular. He estimates about 33 young growers and industry folks joined the tour, and sponsors helped keep the cost down so meals, snacks, water, and bus transportation was all taken care of.
Wells also says he hoped the group would take one or two things back to their operations to apply. And, that’s exactly what they did.
“At each different place you can compare and contrast your operation against theirs in terms of scale and size and the way that you get your labor and what different ways you could manage the same business,” says grower Joel Crist of Crist Brothers in Walden, NY. “It sheds new light on some things you may be doing because it’s the way you’ve always done it, and not even thought of a different way to do the same thing.”
Differences in Production
Crist says the trip to a different growing region was very important. Noting how the conditions make growing ‘Honeycrisp’ some of the best in the country, and growers also successfully grow ‘SnapDragon’ and ‘SweeTango’ as well as the traditional ‘McIntosh.’
Shane Nesbitt of in Waterport, NY, says the early-season variety mix was especially of note due to the region’s Oct. 15 cutoff date for fear of early frosts. Like Crist and Nesbitt, David Bittner of Bitter Singer Farms says seeing club varieties firsthand is important as many growers in Western New York are looking to expand offerings.
While some production systems the young growers saw were on larger rootstocks and inner-stem plantings, reinvestment is happening – with a slow transition to high-density plantings and dwarfing rootstocks as well as installing new packing lines and purchasing harvest-assist equipment.
“There is a lot of positive outlook on the fruit industry in the region but there is some that are more reserved for the future,” Bittner says.
A highlight for many young growers was hail netting at Chazy Orchards in Chazy, NY. On 20 acres, the operation added removable netting to protect high-value crops.
As many of the young growers indicated, hail storms seem to be increasing and investment in high-value varieties makes protecting the investment even more important.
“In a way that was much more economical and feasible for a lot of us,” Crist adds about the hail netting.
The vertically integrated orchards of the Champlain Valley were also of interest to the growers who attended.
“Unlike a lot of places in Western New York, pretty much every farm up there has its own packinghouse,” Nesbitt says. “It’s a good tool in the toolbox to have to be able to pack your own fruit and control your destiny a little more.”
It was also hard for the tour goers not to miss how orchards are using hard cider as a value-added element to their operations.
“Everywhere you go, hard cider is the topic of conversation on these farms. They’re seeing it as a possible alternative market,” says Luke DeFisher of DeFisher Fruit Farms in Williamson, NY. “There’s some caution on the growers’ end to its staying power or how much of a market there will be.”
Bittner notes that some operations are also using hard cider as a way to eliminate waste.
“Some farms are doing this as value-added products while others have a use for the packing line sort outs without having to ship very far,” he says.
While production and business management are obviously key focuses of any fruit growing tour, what makes the young grower trip unique is the comradery and networking opportunities with peers in the New York fruit industry, says Wells.
“[The young growers could] share experiences and frankly talk about some of the challenges of being the next generation on the farm,” he says.
Crist says tours outside his own growing region is vital for his family’s operation.
“I got to meet and really get to know some guys that I’ve only seen in passing or have never met before,” he says. “It’s important to go on those types of things because you never know what you are going to learn that could end up being very valuable to your operation.”
Tom Coene, a young grower from Windmill Farms in Ontario, NY, agrees with Crist.
“Events like these are extremely important for our industry in New York and the Eastern U.S. as a whole, if we hope to compete with Washington State,” he says. “Collaboration, especially among the younger generation, is more important now more than ever in order to share ideas about varieties, rootstocks, equipment, and labor.”
Wells agrees, saying it’s refreshing to see the interest the tree fruit industry is getting from the next generation. Almost twenty years ago that wasn’t the case, he says. The interest in farming and agriculture wasn’t there.
“There seems to be this rash of young growers and industry people coming into the business – even going back five or eight years — and that’s just a good sign,” says Wells.
Coene says the tour definitely emphasized the growing community young New York growers are building and fostering.
“There is quite a group of young growers in the state of New York that are very passionate about what they do and are very open to sharing their ideas and knowledge with others,” he says. “There really is a growing theme of ‘we’re all in this together’ coming up around the state.”