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Apple growers share their innovations

3 apple growers shared their innovative practices with attendees at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention

March 31, 2008  By Hugh McElhone

Three apple growers shared their
innovative practices with attendees at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable
Convention, in St. Catharines, Ontario. The following includes their
experiences in using reflective mulch, a new sprayer system, and hail
netting, respectively.

apple_binsThree apple growers shared their innovative practices with attendees at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention, in St. Catharines, Ontario. The following includes their experiences in using reflective mulch, a new sprayer system, and hail netting, respectively.

Reflective mulch
Paul Goddard farms 70 acres of apples just west of Brighton, along the north shore of Lake Ontario. He has a mix of apple cultivars planted on semi-dwarfing root stock, planted eight feet apart, on rows 25 feet wide.


Goddard began experimenting with reflective mulch in his orchard five years ago. His objectives were to bounce sunlight into his trees to aid in colouring the fruit, plus help with weed control on his sandy soil.

To do this, Goddard put front-mounted forks on his tractor to carry a custom-built mulch layer. As the tractor drives along the row, the reflective mulch is placed as close to the base of the tree as possible. The layer itself can be shifted in or out, with regards to the trees, by a hydraulic cylinder. The mulch edges are held in place with sand shoveled from a wagon towed behind the tractor.

Goddard says the mulch is lain three weeks before harvest, and ideally on a cloudy day so there is less glare and heat reflected on the operator. He does not like the mulch super tight, preferring instead to have some ripples to better move light through the foliage.

Goddard laid 40 rolls of mulch in 2005, taking an estimated 30 minutes per 2,000-foot roll. The mulch is 99 per cent reflective and is picked up after harvest for disposal. He estimates his total mulching costs at about $300 per acre, or seven cents per foot.

“After using this for five years, I don’t consider it an experiment anymore,” he said. With the mulch, “you can see the apples brighten as it unrolls,” he noted, and the apples soon redden, even when located just 18 inches from the ground.

Overall, Goddard has found a more uniform colour among his McIntosh, Spartan, and even the late-to-ripen Ida Red. He is also getting more apples on the packing line with the same number of acres. Starting at the top of the tree, he says they pick every apple by the time harvest is over.

New sprayer system
John de Leeuw joined his father, Dan, on the family farm in 1984. The farm, located near Grafton, Ontario, is comprised of 108 acres on which the family grows primarily apples and sweet corn. They also operate a busy roadside market, which has resulted in problems spraying the nearby orchard discretely.

To address this problem, de Leeuw switched to sprayer towers using the “Smart Spray” system. Of the sprayer itself, spray nozzles are mounted on rigid towers on either side of the tank at the rear. A blower fan provides the force needed to side-blast the trees with the spray mixture.

The Smart Spray system uses sound waves to detect trees and objects, and can turn off one of more nozzles when it notices a gap between trees, or trees
shorter than the boom. Ground speed is programmed into an onboard computer and four different spray programs are available in order to deal with tree spacing. The computer also has a manual override system.

De Leeuw has found unexpected benefits to this system, other than its low-key operation, such as being able to spray at lower pressures. Fan speed can also be adjusted to reduce drift.

With Smart Spray, he has gained another 2.5 acres of coverage from the 15 he usually received from his 600 gallon tank. Spraying costs have also been reduced by 30 per cent on his one-year old trees. “We’re no longer spraying the big gaps between the whips,” he noted.

hailHail netting
Paul Frankis operates a farm of 75 acres near Leamington, Ontario. The operation’s main crop is apples, along with a few acres of sweet cherries. One of the first things Frankis noticed, after settling in Essex County, was the high frequency of thunderstorms and the accompanying hail.

“Hail netting is standard around the world,” says Frankis, “it’s just rare in North America.” Having worked in orchards around the world, Frankis was not afraid to invest in a hail-netting system. He currently has 15 acres of apples covered.

Frankis uses a high-density tree system with trellises large enough to support both the trees and netting. Initially, his established orchards were not set up for a netting structure so galvanized tubing was used to extend the height of his existing posts.

His new orchards use 16-foot lengths of tubing with four feet of each tube in the ground. The tubing is further secured with top cables stretching to the row ends, and held by anchors buried six feet deep. The netting is attached to these top cables and then pulled taut over end cables. “It’s basically a small roof over each row,” he explained.

Unfurled, the nets are clipped together with gaps left in the centre so hail can fall onto the driven row. In the fall, the netting is rolled back and tied. Frankis estimates three people can roll back three acres of netting per day.

The polyethylene netting is made in Italy and can be cut to fit your row spacings, says Frankis. The cloth has a lifespan of about 15 years and comes in black, white or grey.

The initial cost of hail netting is easily the biggest drawback. Considering the price of netting, tubing, cable, anchors, assembly gear and labour, Frankis estimates it costs upwards of $7,000 per acre to establish the structure. Amortized over 15 years, that cost can drop to $500 per acre, he added.

There are many benefits to netting other than insurance against hail. The structure provides shelter from the wind and Frankis has seen less fire blight trauma thanks to less wind damage. The netting also contains sprayer drift, and provides shade during times of extreme heat.

Its ultimate purpose, however, is to protect high value varieties such as Honey Crisp, Gala or Ambrosia from a devastating hail storm. Should any of the apple crop survive, Frankis said “packers don’t want hail-damaged fruit. It’s too expensive to work with.”

Frankis says their farm has not yet experienced any hail since he erected the netting. He added that situation is perfectly fine with him. It only has to work once to justify itself, he concluded.

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