Drought. It’s a term synonymous with growing regions West of the Mississippi River, but an unlikely adversary in Western New York — where this year’s International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) summer tour took place. The three-day event highlighted the production, progress, and potential of the tree fruit industry in Western New York.
Growers in this part of the country don’t often need drip irrigation, even for young apple plantings. But this year has been an exception for a region near Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes. Amid all the green foliage, there is a lot of dust and brown grass.
Daniel Pettit of Pettit Farms in Medina, NY, says April was the last substantial rainfall for his family’s farm – where they had 2 ½ inches of precipitation. When the IFTA tour-goers visited, it had been seven weeks without precipitation.
“In all my years – and some older guys’ too – we have not seen a year like this,” he says.
Grower Jeff Smith of Ledge Rock Farms in Medina, NY, says he uses Cornell University’s Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA) for his irrigation decisions. But, the choice of whether to irrigate or not hasn’t been all that difficult.
“This year it has been real easy, just turn the water on,” he says. “If you’re spending the type of money we are, it’s dumb not to [irrigate].”
The lack of precipitation is also a challenge for many Western New York growers who do not use drip irrigation. However, with the challenges this growing season has presented, growers may reconsider giving their young trees a boost.
“We are losing fruit size in Western New York because we don’t irrigate,” says Patrick Woodworth of Sandy Knoll Farms in Lyndonville, NY.
Some fruit farms in Western New York are starting to create their own nurseries. Sometimes it is out of convenience, as was the case with VanDeWalle Fruit Farm in Sodus, NY. The family needed to replant trees quickly, and their first attempt at a nursery didn’t go so well.
But, as things smoothed out, they are able to now produce around 400,000 trees in one nursery and 600,000 in another farm nursery. As more acres are added to the farm, these trees are in demand. Mike Maloney, who oversees the nursery, says the cost of trees is less, but “we’re incurring all the risk, we accept that risk as cost savings.”
Any issue with young trees can be addressed in the nursery, in order to deliver a consistent tree. Another benefit Maloney said is he and his crew can dig trees out of the nursery field and plant them the same day in the fall.
Although VanDeWalle’s nursery does not propagate any Geneva rootstocks in their nursery, Scott VanDeWalle is one of many growers partnering with Gennaro Fazio of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service on trials of some soon to be released Geneva rootstocks.
Jason Woodworth, Jose Iniguez, and Rod Farrow at Fish Creek Orchards (aka Lamont Fruit Farm) in Waterport, NY, also have a nursery. Their approach to planting is a bit of an accident. They left 3,000 trees in the nursery, so Iniguez decided to play around with dormant pruning, which turned out to be a happy accident, and once the trees were planted, they were very productive. Now, they grow 2-year-old trees before planting. They push branches down to grow big trees with 12 small darts, so by the time the tree is planted it’s 8 feet tall and has 14 darts.
Woodworth says the way they were planting and pruning trees, “we were never going to win [Terence Robinson’s] . But now, “look at that tree, it’s a good thing Terence is in Mexico because we’d be eating a whole cow.”