Tree Fruit Growers Move Toward Automation

High-Density Orchard

Note: The cover story of American/Western Fruit Grower’s April issue featured growers and researchers in Pennsylvania who are involved in a Penn State University Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project to develop growing systems that will allow greater orchard mechanization and labor efficiency in the near future. This story highlight some of the technology that is part of this transition to mechanization, and how the state’s apple industry responded to changing market trends in order to make this happen. Much of the information for this article comes from a “Specialty Crop Innovations: Progress and Future Directions” report published by Penn State Extension.

Until recently, nearly three-quarters of Pennsylvania’s apple crop was destined for the processing market. However, as the industry moves toward more fresh-market production, this transition has required a greater focus on fruit quality and getting full production in a quicker period of time.

Increased productivity, however, comes at a cost. High-density orchards require supplemental tree support that adds greatly to their initial investment. Average establishment costs for a high-density block in the Mid-Atlantic region are between $8,000 and $10,000 per acre compared to traditional low-density systems that cost $2,500 to $3,000 per acre to establish. Early and significant yields — a key benefit of high-density production — are critical in achieving maximum economic return and expedited payback in these systems.

The investment is well worth it, however, especially when it comes to future savings in labor. “Transitioning to uniform, high-density orchards will put growers in the best possible position to take advantage of new labor reducing technologies as they are developed,” says Matt Harsh, a fruit and vegetable grower in Smithburg, PA.

A New Orchard Blueprint

While it is a well-known and generally agreed-upon principle that smaller trees require less labor because they require less pruning and minimize ladder use, few high-density training systems were developed with labor efficiency in mind, and fewer still to facilitate the use of labor-saving mechanization. In fact, Jim Schupp, associate professor of pomology at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center, has declared at several industry meetings the past few years that fruit growers need to rethink their planting systems and make them more compatible with the potential benefits that mechanized orchard technology can provide.

A few years ago, tree fruit researchers at a fruit production workshop developed a “blueprint” of a successful intensive apple system (the blueprint includes dwarfing rootstocks and high tree density; quality nursery stock; supported canopies; single rows of tall narrow canopies; a canopy shape that complements natural tree form; minimal pruning; and minimal branching structure). In order to be economically productive, the orchard needs to achieve high light interception without creating dense areas in the canopy. Over time horticulturists found that when an orchard system is entirely within the reach of a person on the ground, one of two bad things happens: Either the canopy is productive but too dense, causing a loss of fruit quality, or the canopy is too small, causing loss of yield. The solution has been to increase canopy volume without condensing the canopy by growing the tree taller, while keeping it narrow and orienting the rows in a north-south direction wherever possible to minimize cross-row shading.

According to Schupp, these narrow fruiting wall systems can provide several advantages:
• The tall narrow tree wall is horticulturally sound, and its biological efficiency surpasses the performance of most existing systems.
• Sunlight and labor have the same reach. With narrow canopies, you can address both problems of light distribution and platform labor reach simultaneously.

Once this blueprint was established, the next step was to develop the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project, covered in the April issue of American/Western Fruit Grower. The CIG plantings are evaluating the effect of two high-density apple growing systems on productivity, fruit quality, and labor efficiency. The trees are being trained to form either a continuous tree wall, or a cone-shaped canopy with discrete gaps in the tree tops. Labor efficiency between the two systems is being compared using both ladders and a mobile platform. The large number of CIG trials and the relatively large size of the plantings will also provide adequate space for evaluating additional labor saving technologies developed through two USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) projects funded in 2008. By blending this research into the CIG demonstration project, researchers hope to increase the visibility of the results and speed industry adoption of new practices as they develop.

To watch videos of Jim Schupp, as well as Pennsylvania fruit grower Bruce Hollabaugh, discussing how CIG plantings will benefit the apple industry,.

To learn more about the technology being developed for these systems, go to the next page of this story.

Pages: 1 2

Leave a Reply

Featured Stories
GrapesWashington Winegrape Harvest Earlier Than Ever
September 3, 2015
  This year’s juice and winegrape harvest in Washington is historic. Michelle Moyer, Washington State University assistant professor, Dept. of Read More
FruitsBeaudry, Watkins, And Davenport Named Fellows Of American Society for Horticultural Science
September 3, 2015
Randolph Beaudry of Michigan State University (MSU), Joan Davenport of Washington State University (WSU), and Christopher Watkins of Cornell University Read More
GrapesWildfires Raise Fears Of Grape Smoke Taint
September 3, 2015
 The current wildfires in Washington have left many growers wondering if smoke taint could impact the flavor of their winegrapes. Read More
FruitsOrganic Industry Unites To “Bust Myths” Throughout September
September 2, 2015
Organic Trade Association members join forces in social media blitz to address misconceptions about organic production. Read More
CitrusResearchers Use Wasps To Protect Citrus Trees From Greening
September 2, 2015
A recent story in the Los Angeles Times highlights some of the new research being conducted in the fight against Read More
Apples & PearsHard Cider Organization Offers Accredited Program
September 1, 2015
United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) introduces Sicera, the first-ever hard Cider Certification Program. This accreditation program is designed Read More
Apples & PearsProducts To Help Prevent Preharvest Drop In Apple Orchards
September 1, 2015
In the latest Extension bulletin from Penn State University, James Schupp associate professor of pomology suggests several products to apply Read More
Apples & PearsMarvin Sundquist Dies At 89
September 1, 2015
Marvin Sundquist, the retired owner of Sundquist Fruit and Cold Storage, died on Aug. 29 at the age of 89, Read More
Apples & PearsSyngenta Receives EPA Registration For Solatenol  Fungicide
September 1, 2015
The fungicide is available in four product offerings, pending state registrations. Read More
Grower Achievement AwardPero Family Farms Is The 2015 Grower Achievement Award Recipient
September 1, 2015
The farm family that runs this Delray Beach-FL based operation develops, produces, packages, and markets its fresh-cut products while continuing to think outside the box. Read More
The Latest
GrapesWashington Winegrape Harvest Earlier Than Ever
September 3, 2015
  This year’s juice and winegrape harvest in Washington is historic. Michelle Moyer, Washington State University assistant professor, Dept. of Read More
FruitsBeaudry, Watkins, And Davenport Named Fellows Of Ameri…
September 3, 2015
Randolph Beaudry of Michigan State University (MSU), Joan Davenport of Washington State University (WSU), and Christopher Watkins of Cornell University Read More
GrapesWildfires Raise Fears Of Grape Smoke Taint
September 3, 2015
 The current wildfires in Washington have left many growers wondering if smoke taint could impact the flavor of their winegrapes. Read More
FruitsOrganic Industry Unites To “Bust Myths” Thr…
September 2, 2015
Organic Trade Association members join forces in social media blitz to address misconceptions about organic production. Read More
CitrusResearchers Use Wasps To Protect Citrus Trees From Gree…
September 2, 2015
A recent story in the Los Angeles Times highlights some of the new research being conducted in the fight against Read More
Apples & PearsHard Cider Organization Offers Accredited Program
September 1, 2015
United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) introduces Sicera, the first-ever hard Cider Certification Program. This accreditation program is designed Read More
Apples & PearsProducts To Help Prevent Preharvest Drop In Apple Orcha…
September 1, 2015
In the latest Extension bulletin from Penn State University, James Schupp associate professor of pomology suggests several products to apply Read More
Apples & PearsMarvin Sundquist Dies At 89
September 1, 2015
Marvin Sundquist, the retired owner of Sundquist Fruit and Cold Storage, died on Aug. 29 at the age of 89, Read More
Apples & PearsSyngenta Receives EPA Registration For Solatenol  Fungi…
September 1, 2015
The fungicide is available in four product offerings, pending state registrations. Read More
Grower Achievement AwardPero Family Farms Is The 2015 Grower Achievement Award …
September 1, 2015
The farm family that runs this Delray Beach-FL based operation develops, produces, packages, and markets its fresh-cut products while continuing to think outside the box. Read More
Dennis P. Broadaway
CitrusFlorida Citrus Packers Bestows Association’s Highest Ho…
September 1, 2015
For his dedication to the Sunshine State’s fresh citrus sector, Dennis Broadaway receives John T. Lesley Award for Excellence. Read More
Citrus Achievement AwardSaving Citrus A Perpetual Task
September 1, 2015
Orie Lee, the 2015 Citrus Achievement Award winner, talks about how growing citrus has changed in his lifetime and how it hasn't. Read More
Florida Ag Expo10th Annual Florida Ag Expo Field Tours To Tackle Produ…
September 1, 2015
There will be plenty to see and learn during the milestone event's exclusive field trials. Read More
Apples & PearsPennsylvania Congressman Supports CIDER Act
August 31, 2015
Freshman Congressman Ryan Costello (PA-06) spent a recent afternoon at Frecon Farms in Boyertown, PA, to tout the CIDER Act, Read More
Oriental Fruit fly
CitrusExotic Fruit Flies Invade South Florida
August 31, 2015
Efforts are under way to eradicate pest that attacks more than 230 different fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Read More
Business PlanningBe Food Safety Recall-Ready [Opinion]
August 31, 2015
No one ever wants to make someone sick after consuming fresh produce, but in spite of the protocols in place, recallls happen and you must be prepared. Read More
Crop ProtectionSustainable Options For Controlling Brown Marmorated St…
August 31, 2015
A researcher from Rutgers University offers pointers to help you control this pest of fruits and vegetables. Read More
CitrusNominations Open For Next Class Of Florida Citrus Hall …
August 31, 2015
Inductees to be honored during the 54th annual Citrus Celebration Luncheon. Read More