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
Berries
May 26, 2017
Jury Sides with University in Strawberry Breeding Lawsuit
Decision says former breeders infringed on UC patents to develop material for corporate breeding firm. Read More
Managed bee hive boxes around a blueberry field
Nuts
May 25, 2017
Stolen Hives Recovered in Nearly $1M Heist
Man likely stole hives from across the state of California in the last three years. Read More
Panama Canal Expansion opening celebration
Farm Management
May 25, 2017
Plight of Trade Policy Grounding Many U.S. Growers
Much-needed investments in labor-saving technology could be key to long-term survival. Read More
Cannabis plant closeup
Farm Management
May 25, 2017
Florida Farm Winning Case for Medicinal Cannabis License
Judge rules in favor of 3 Boys Farm in the quest to expand its crop/business portfolio. Read More
hands holding a globe
Citrus
May 25, 2017
Are We Overstating the World’s Overpopulation Problem?
If growers can’t achieve a fair return on investment and stay in business, it won’t matter what the population is in 2050. We all will be trouble. Read More
Falcon-takes-flight-at-Duncan-Family-Farms
Citrus
May 24, 2017
Falcons Scare off Other Birds at Duncan Family Farms
It collaborates with a firm that uses trained falcons to intimidate and scare off nuisance birds such as the horned larks and pigeons that frequent the area. Read More
Organic
May 24, 2017
Organic Growers in Turmoil (Opinion)
Although consumers are demanding, and getting more organic produce options, growers are grappling with fundamental questions. Read More
Corn leaf aphids on sweet corn
Sweet Corn
May 24, 2017
Stay on Your A Game to Conquer Corn Leaf Aphid
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this vegetable pest. Read More
Florida Ag Hall of Famer William Cook
Citrus
May 23, 2017
Search is on For Next Crop of Florida Agriculture Hall of Famers
Nomination period now open for longtime industry honor. Read More
Apples & Pears
May 23, 2017
Grower Shares Personal Impact of Labor Shortage
USApple leader Phil Glaize of Virginia stresses need for reform with current labor regulations, programs at Congressional briefing on agriculture labor crisis. Read More
Stone Fruit
May 23, 2017
Northeast Peach Crop Rebounds
After a mild winter and relatively uneventful bloom time, the crop is setting up nicely for the region. Read More
Berries
May 23, 2017
Researchers Examining Potential for Longer Berry Season in Northeast
Team at Penn State University using low and high tunnels and plastic coverings to extend raspberry and strawberry seasons. Read More
honeybees
Citrus
May 23, 2017
Webinar Series Highlights New Research on Honeybee Health
National Pollinator Week webinar showcases research to improve honeybee colony health by 2020. Read More
stack of lemons
Citrus
May 23, 2017
California Lemon Growers Sue USDA
Lemon industry files suit against rule allowing importation of Argentine lemons. Read More
Bee Vectoring Technologies experimental hives
Citrus
May 23, 2017
Insects (Bad and Good) Make for Interesting Field Trips
Disease-fighting bees and the deadly citrus psyllid were at the center of two recent, research-fueled out-of-office adventures. Read More
The Latest
Berries
May 26, 2017
Jury Sides with University in Strawberry…
Decision says former breeders infringed on UC patents to develop material for corporate breeding firm. Read More
Nuts
May 25, 2017
Stolen Hives Recovered in Nearly $1M Hei…
Man likely stole hives from across the state of California in the last three years. Read More
Farm Management
May 25, 2017
Plight of Trade Policy Grounding Many U.…
Much-needed investments in labor-saving technology could be key to long-term survival. Read More
Farm Management
May 25, 2017
Florida Farm Winning Case for Medicinal …
Judge rules in favor of 3 Boys Farm in the quest to expand its crop/business portfolio. Read More
Citrus
May 25, 2017
Are We Overstating the World’s Ove…
If growers can’t achieve a fair return on investment and stay in business, it won’t matter what the population is in 2050. We all will be trouble. Read More
Citrus
May 24, 2017
Falcons Scare off Other Birds at Duncan …
It collaborates with a firm that uses trained falcons to intimidate and scare off nuisance birds such as the horned larks and pigeons that frequent the area. Read More
Organic
May 24, 2017
Organic Growers in Turmoil (Opinion)
Although consumers are demanding, and getting more organic produce options, growers are grappling with fundamental questions. Read More
Sweet Corn
May 24, 2017
Stay on Your A Game to Conquer Corn Leaf…
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this vegetable pest. Read More
Citrus
May 23, 2017
Search is on For Next Crop of Florida Ag…
Nomination period now open for longtime industry honor. Read More
Apples & Pears
May 23, 2017
Grower Shares Personal Impact of Labor S…
USApple leader Phil Glaize of Virginia stresses need for reform with current labor regulations, programs at Congressional briefing on agriculture labor crisis. Read More
Stone Fruit
May 23, 2017
Northeast Peach Crop Rebounds
After a mild winter and relatively uneventful bloom time, the crop is setting up nicely for the region. Read More
Berries
May 23, 2017
Researchers Examining Potential for Long…
Team at Penn State University using low and high tunnels and plastic coverings to extend raspberry and strawberry seasons. Read More
Citrus
May 23, 2017
Webinar Series Highlights New Research o…
National Pollinator Week webinar showcases research to improve honeybee colony health by 2020. Read More
Citrus
May 23, 2017
California Lemon Growers Sue USDA
Lemon industry files suit against rule allowing importation of Argentine lemons. Read More
Citrus
May 23, 2017
Insects (Bad and Good) Make for Interest…
Disease-fighting bees and the deadly citrus psyllid were at the center of two recent, research-fueled out-of-office adventures. Read More
Crop Protection
May 23, 2017
Valent Grants Organic Farming Scholarshi…
University of Florida Doctor of Plant Medicine student receives $1,500 toward the development of training materials. Read More
Varieties & Rootstocks
May 23, 2017
In Quest for Low-Seeded Citrus, It Takes…
Momentum for viable mandarin hybrids for Florida reaching a peak in the land down under. Read More
GenNext Growers
May 22, 2017
How to Make Dollars and Sense of Today&#…
Despite current challenges impacting the future of the North American fruit and vegetable industry, there are opportunities to be had. Read More