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.

Leave a Reply

Featured Stories
Case IH autonomus tractor
Equipment
January 17, 2017
Agricultural Robots No Longer Science Fiction
New automated technologies could help specialty crop growers deal with labor crisis. Read More
Citrus
January 16, 2017
First Bee in Continental U.S. Listed as Endangered Species
Rusty patched bumble bee receives protection from activities that could cause it to go extinct. Read More
Fruits
January 16, 2017
Pollination Experts Host Webinar Series
Fruit and vegetable growers can prepare for spring by hearing about recent pollination research. Read More
Example of how farmers can use iPads to track data around his operation
Citrus
January 16, 2017
Precision Agriculture and Big Data Gaining Traction Fast
Specialty crop adoption of hort tech to usher in new efficiencies and transparency. Read More
Crop Protection
January 16, 2017
Monsanto, NRGene Enter Agreement for Big Data Genomic Analysis Technology
Technology platform is designed to help Monsanto analyze, store, and mine its genomic data sets to enhance breeding and R&D opportunities. Read More
a firm handshake signifies a done deal
Apples & Pears
January 16, 2017
Earl Brown & Sons Sold to Washington Fruit Grower
Foreman family purchases Oregon’s largest grower, packer of fresh apples. Read More
Urban vegetable farm in rural Cuba
Citrus
January 15, 2017
New Transitional Certification Program to Foster Organic Growth Receives USDA Approval
The program will be based on standards developed by the Organic Trade Association. Read More
Apples & Pears
January 14, 2017
Washington State University Researchers Develop Hard Cider Apple Storage, Harvesting Recommendations
A study by researchers at Washington State University offer cider apple harvesting and storage recommendations for growers. Travis Alexander, Jaqueline Read More
Tom Vilsack entering stage for a speech
Citrus
January 13, 2017
Vilsack Bids Fond Farewell in Early Exit From Top Office
With no clear-cut replacement in sight, U.S. agriculture secretary leaves one week before his term officially ends. Read More
Close-up of mature diamondback moth
Insect Control
January 13, 2017
3 Ways to Save Your Vegetable Crops From Diamondback Moths
An integrated approach is key to managing this destructive pest. Read More
The Latest
Equipment
January 17, 2017
Agricultural Robots No Longer Science Fi…
New automated technologies could help specialty crop growers deal with labor crisis. Read More
Citrus
January 16, 2017
First Bee in Continental U.S. Listed as …
Rusty patched bumble bee receives protection from activities that could cause it to go extinct. Read More
Fruits
January 16, 2017
Pollination Experts Host Webinar Series
Fruit and vegetable growers can prepare for spring by hearing about recent pollination research. Read More
Citrus
January 16, 2017
Precision Agriculture and Big Data Gaini…
Specialty crop adoption of hort tech to usher in new efficiencies and transparency. Read More
Crop Protection
January 16, 2017
Monsanto, NRGene Enter Agreement for Big…
Technology platform is designed to help Monsanto analyze, store, and mine its genomic data sets to enhance breeding and R&D opportunities. Read More
Apples & Pears
January 16, 2017
Earl Brown & Sons Sold to Washington…
Foreman family purchases Oregon’s largest grower, packer of fresh apples. Read More
Citrus
January 15, 2017
New Transitional Certification Program t…
The program will be based on standards developed by the Organic Trade Association. Read More
Apples & Pears
January 14, 2017
Washington State University Researchers …
A study by researchers at Washington State University offer cider apple harvesting and storage recommendations for growers. Travis Alexander, Jaqueline Read More
Citrus
January 13, 2017
Vilsack Bids Fond Farewell in Early Exit…
With no clear-cut replacement in sight, U.S. agriculture secretary leaves one week before his term officially ends. Read More
Insect Control
January 13, 2017
3 Ways to Save Your Vegetable Crops From…
An integrated approach is key to managing this destructive pest. Read More
Citrus
January 12, 2017
Season’s First Slip Seen In Latest Flori…
Despite slight drop in Valencias, silver linings found. Read More
Potatoes
January 12, 2017
NPC’s 2016 Environmental Stewardship Awa…
The farm plants a rotation of potatoes, barley, wheat, and alfalfa to reduce pest pressure and uses IPM techniques throughout the farming operation. Read More
Insect & Disease Update
January 11, 2017
Florida Citrus Growers get Another Bacte…
EPA Section 18 re-issued for treatment of HLB-infected trees. Read More
More Vegetables
January 11, 2017
Taste for Locally Grown Asian Veggies Tr…
Team of researchers probe expanding potential for niche market profitability. Read More
Vegetables
January 11, 2017
What Worries Vegetable Growers, in their…
We asked growers which issues were the most worrying for them. Here is a sampling of what you had to say. Read More
Vegetables
January 11, 2017
Who is the Typical American Vegetable Gr…
We at American Vegetable Grower wondered what kind of grower emerged if we took top responses for each question and put them all together. Check out what we learned! Read More
Farm Management
January 11, 2017
Where Do Vegetable Growers Find Labor?
Only 14% of vegetable growers use the H-2A program as a source of labor, according to American Vegetable Grower's 2017 State of the Vegetable Industry Survey. So where is the industry finding its labor? Read More
Potatoes
January 11, 2017
Potato Growers Select NPC Leadership for…
Dwayne Weyers of Aspen Produce in Colorado was chosen as the next president of the National Potato Council. Read More