Orchard management important to success

Apples are the third most valuable fruit crop in the United States, following grapes and oranges, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. The 2010 apple crop was valued at $2.2 billion, with 60 percent of apple production sold as fresh fruit. Sales locations range from on-site orchard markets and the backs of pickup trucks along highways to upscale, gourmet-type fresh markets in urban areas. Apples are grown in all 50 states and grown commercially in 29 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. New variety development continues, with disease resistance a major research focus. While Washington, New York and Michigan are top apple producers, and Indiana ranks far down the chart at 19th, apples and apple orchard activities are significant in that state.

Apple trees in full bloom in spring.

Sarah Brown and her husband Rick are owners of The Apple Works, Trafalgar, Ind., located about an hour south of Indianapolis, Ind. Brown has turned her childhood-inspired horticulture interest into an 8,000-tree commercial apple orchard producing 14,000 to 16,000 bushels of apples annually. Efficient orchard management and response to consumer interests in apple varieties and entertaining activities have created a successful business.

A very mild 2011-2012 winter and expected wet spring common to the Midwest combine to make apple orchard owners wary of a challenging growing season. Weather conditions have exacerbated orchard threats in past years, and while this winter’s extremely mild weather has presented at least one advantage, it could also lead to greater disease and insect threats in Midwestern orchards.

“We’re about a month ahead with the pruning,” Brown said, in noting the increased time when temperatures have been right for pruning. Diligent attention will be needed to combat potential heightened disease and insect threats, as organisms can overwinter more effectively in mild winters. “Everything we do is dependent on the weather,” said Brown.

As in vegetable and other fruit production, development of fungicide resistance is a growing concern. “Midwestern apple orchards face numerous threats, and fungicide resistance development is probably the number one concern,” said Dr. Janna Beckerman, associate professor, Purdue University Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. “Growers need education on adequate use of the older protectants.” While newer products may be used after disease is present, older fungicides must be properly applied as preventive measures. The use of preventive products is increasingly indicated as fungicide resistance becomes more prevalent.

The Apple Works Country Store.

Growing a business

While orchard management is a year-round activity, springtime is especially busy as The Apple Works prepares for its season of apple production and sales. About 75 percent of the apples are sold at the on-site Country Store, which carries specialty food items and gifts. About 15 percent of the apples go into apple cider. “We sell the remainder wholesale,” Brown said. “We deliver to several small markets and cooperatives in south central Indiana.”

Brown worked a number of years as a microbiologist at Eli Lilly & Co., and Rick recently retired from an Eli Lilly position in finance. “When we started our family, I decided to stay home and raise my children myself,” Brown said. She was eager to devote time to her horticulture interest and planted fruit trees and a garden. After she supplied neighbors and friends with ample produce for a few years, Rick suggested that she might want to grow apples commercially. She launched The Apple Works in 1989 with 200 apple trees.

Early spring weeds are controlled with Roundup spray.

The Apple Works has about seven full-time, year-round employees, with the number of employees going up to 50 or 60 beginning in summer. “Our employees are all local people,” Brown noted. “Our two daughters were very involved in the orchard growing up, but we encouraged them to follow their own interests.” One daughter now lives in New York City and the other in Berkeley, Calif.

Managing the orchard

New varieties are planted at The Apple Works each year. “Customers’ buying habits change, and we have to listen to what our customers tell us,” Brown said. She noted the importance of regularly renovating orchards. “We try to replant about 10 percent of our orchard each year and may plant up to 1,000 new trees, adding new varieties. For example, we weren’t selling as many Yellow Delicious as we had previously, so we took out some of those trees. We diversify our varieties to help minimize risks.”

Sarah Brown and staff rake leaves and pruning waste from the ground to maintain proper orchard sanitation.

Among the varieties grown at The Apple Works are niche varieties that include Golden Russet, Orin, Splendor and GoldRush, as well as classics such as Golden Delicious, Fuji and Gala. The Pink Lady extends the apple harvest into November as the last variety picked annually. Brown did much of her own grafting when the orchard was smaller, but with the increased size, she has little time to devote to grafting new varieties.

Large pruning cuts are painted with white latexpaint mixed with naphthylacetic acid to preventnew growth around the cut.

Soil analysis is conducted to determine fertilizer needs, and fertilizer is applied by mid-March. “We’re fortunate in having a fertilizer company, Premier Ag, here in Trafalgar, that custom-blends our fertilizer needs based on the soil analysis,” Brown said.

Pruning begins after harvest and may run through about the end of March. With the mild winter that’s been experienced, insect control steps may be taken early this year. Brown noted San Jose scale and aphids as pests of concern. “We are starting to think about dormant oil applications,” Brown said. The dormant oil application suffocates pests that have overwintered. She cited the importance of applying products according to instructions to avoid harming beneficial predators.

Disease management is a major issue in all orchards, and sanitation is a must. “We think we have a very clean orchard,” she said. Brush and leaves are raked, and a flail machine is used to finely grind the leaves and brush, which are returned to the orchard floor. “We apply urea to the leaves that have fallen to help with decomposition,” Brown said. The decomposed leaves are later raked up, along with branches that have been pruned, and run through the flail machine. Brown noted that removing all old wood from the orchard is a major consideration in their orchard sanitation focus.

Marketing apples and entertainment

In addition to selling apples, The Apple Works markets specialty foods and gifts in its Country Market and special activities at the orchard. “We advertise our orchard in the newspaper, and we get calls for interviews,” Brown said. “We might do some radio advertising.”

Early spring varieties that bruise easily are picked directly into totes.

Agritourism has become increasingly important at the orchard as more urban and suburban dwellers want to visit working farms. “I didn’t realize we would be in the entertainment business when we started the orchard. But people expect these activities now,” Brown said.

“We have become a destination orchard,” she said in describing the increasing interest of visitors in not only purchasing apples but also participating in entertaining activities.

The Apple Works hosts educational centers where children can learn about activities at the farm. A number of annual events are scheduled, including many pumpkin-related activities in October. The orchard is a popular site for weddings. From fragrant apple blossom time in spring to pumpkin carving by lantern light, The Apple Works is all-inclusive in its offerings beyond its 50 varieties of apples.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.