Curtis Orchard and UI’s collaboration

Photos by Lee Riggs.
Paul and Jean Curtis participate in orchard activities during apple season.   Randy Graham demonstrates late spring freeze damage to apples.

The colors and aromas associated with fall fruits come together at Curtis Orchard in Champaign, Ill., where apples and pumpkins are grown, and a seasonal restaurant offers homemade specialties. Midwestern farmers have long had a tradition of helping each other out, which could be referred to in today’s terminology as partnering. Curtis Orchard follows that tradition, primarily with its neighbor the University of Illinois with its vast horticultural resources. Development of new technologies to improve orchard operation is extremely important, according to Randy Graham, Curtis Orchard co-owner.

“Partnering with the University is important to us,” said Graham. “Many techniques have been developed here at our orchard where we provide a real-world lab to see what works. We have first access to new technologies.”

The city of Champaign is rapidly encroaching onto the farmland that surrounds the orchard begun by Paul and Joyce Curtis in 1977. They are the parents of Graham’s wife, Debbie. The Grahams are now co-owners of the business, and they continue to apply new technologies to orchard management and have increased agritourism activities as they meet day-to-day challenges. Operating their orchard with reduced chemical use is a primary goal, and the spring of 2007 brought a major challenge of surviving a late spring freeze.

Orchard history

Located on 80 acres remaining in the family from land purchased by George Curtis in 1892, the orchard has evolved from traditional row crop operations common in the Corn Belt. In the often occurring manner of inherited land management, parcels were sold off over the years by various heirs.

Judy Neaville hand-grades apples for sale in the country store.

Paul Curtis was teaching agricultural business classes at Parkland Community College in Champaign in the 1970s. “Paul began reevaluating his life about that time,” Graham said. “Less than 2 percent of the population was living on the land, and they saw a chance to reconnect people to agriculture.”

Curtis Orchard has expanded from the small family orchard from 700 trees in 1977 to more than 5,000 today. The Curtises actively participate at the orchard during the apple season. Approximately 30 varieties of apples are grown. The business includes a country store that sells not only apples and pumpkins, but various apple products including cider that is pressed on-site. The orchard includes a U-Pick operation that represents about 20 to 25 percent of sales.

Originally, the orchard sold apples wholesale as well as at the orchard. “In the beginning, there were more apples than customers,” Graham said. As sales increased, wholesaling apples was discontinued.

Curtis Orchard started growing pumpkins in 1986. “We started with 1/3 acre, and the pumpkins were gone by October 10,” Graham said. “The pumpkins now rival apples. In season, they outsell apples.” About 15 to 20 acres of pumpkins are now planted each year. This year, Graham added a new variety, Cannonball, a particularly popular pumpkin because of its small, uniform size and strong stem.

“We added the agritourism activities to help sell more apples,” Graham said. Pony rides, a corn maze, gem mining, kettle corn and cotton candy all increased family interest in visiting the orchard. “We started grilling hot dogs on the deck,” Graham noted. Food service has now evolved into the Flying Monkey Café managed by Debbie. The cafe serves dinners with homemade applesauce, apple donuts and apple pies and is open from late August through early November.

School tours visit the orchard regularly throughout the fall, and the pumpkin patch is a major draw. Outdoor lunches are served in a pavilion.

New apple variety very popular

Curtis Orchard grows about 30 varieties of apples. Honey Crisp, the most recent addition, has proved extremely popular. “I heard about it from Eckert’s Orchard about six or seven years ago,” Graham said. Graham said that his planting a number of Honey Crisp proved a fortunate move since it has rapidly become one of the most popular varieties.

The mid-season Honey Crisp variety was released by the University of Minnesota and commands a much higher price than other varieties grown in central Illinois. Graham has replaced a number of older apple trees with Honey Crisp trees.

Surviving a late freeze

The spring of 2007 brought unusually warm temperatures to Illinois early in the season. Fruit trees were well along by Easter weekend, and a damaging frost devastated much of the crop. Curtis Orchard was on the northern edge of trees far enough along to be damaged. “We’d had a warm spring and the trees were in full bloom,” Graham said. “Everyone south of us was damaged extensively.” Crop loss estimates in southern Illinois range from 60 to 95 percent. Farther north, trees were not far enough along to be damaged by the frost.

Sensors measure leaf wetness to help determine when spraying is needed.

“We used crop heaters and bonfires to avoid losing fruit,” Graham said. Although some fruit was damaged, losses were minimal.

Benefiting from research

Graham noted that implementing integrated pest management (IPM) has been essential in allowing Curtis Orchard to reduce fungicide and pesticide use dramatically. “IPM practices allow us to monitor conditions in the orchard and pumpkin patch so that we target only the pests and diseases that represent a threat,” he said. Where a shotgun approach was once used in orchard management in hopes of alleviating any potential threats, monitoring techniques now allow specific targeting based on conditions.

Leaf wetness monitors allow measuring and recording of data at 15-minute intervals giving an accurate picture of potential disease threats. Sprayings can be done only when deemed necessary to prevent an accurately predicted threat. Reducing fungicide and pesticide use is a major accomplishments anywhere, and particularly so in the humid Midwestern climate.

Apples enter the sorting process.

Dr. Mohammad Babadoost, University of Illinois plant pathologist, focuses much of his research on ways to reduce the number of fungicide and pesticide applications required to maintain healthy orchards throughout Illinois. Babadoost cited apple maggots and coddling moths as primary pests. Diseases include various fungal diseases along with bacterial and viral diseases, with fire blight the most prevalent.

Babadoost noted that orchard operators must choose a combination of trees that is least susceptible to disease and pests. “It’s very important and is a serious problem in Illinois, which is conducive to problems with the warm, moist climate,” he said. Babadoost noted that Curtis Orchard has reduced pesticide applications particularly well in the past two years. He said that differences often exist in requirements among orchards and among trees within the same orchard.

“Sensors collect data and the program is designed to predict risk,” he said. He noted that sensor use in orchards is gradually increasing. Babadoost has trials located at Curtis Orchard in Champaign, as well as other trials throughout the state.

“The cost of production is in labor,fertilizer and pesticides,” Babadoost said. “The available technology allows orchard operators to minimize input costs while maximizing yield and quality.” He noted that the monitors allow accurate prediction of when spraying is necessary. “They are user-friendly and reasonable in cost,” he said. Throughout the state, necessary sprayings have been reduced by about 46 percent through the use of monitors.

Curtis Orchard uses leaf wetness monitors from Spectrum Technology, Plainfield, Ill. The company offers a variety of monitors. According to Cynthia Turski, IPM production specialist at Spectrum Technology, the monitor model used by Curtis Orchard mimics the leaf, allowing wetness to accumulate and measuring the wetness level. When it reaches a designated level, risk is increased and spraying is recommended.

Although conditions vary each year, Graham noted that leaf wetness monitors have allowed him to cut an average of four to five fungicide sprayings each year. He expressed confidence that new technologies will increasingly allow environmentally friendly orchard operation.

Graham is a member of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association.

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