Growing apples in high gear

At local orchards, new way bears fruit

By Matt Gunderson
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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At Shelburne Farm in Stow, an acre of apple tree saplings, densely packed together in neat rows, stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the orchard.

Buttressed by poles and green wires every few feet, the saplings bulge with glimmering red Braeburn and honey crisp apples. Elsewhere across the 56-acre you-pick apple spread, many conventional apple trees - spaced about 15 feet apart and some of them 100 years old - seem stubby, and have fewer, smaller apples.

The new acre’s arrangement, which almost resembles an Italian vineyard, is rapidly becoming a business model for the future of apple farming, according to Brian Cumming, Shelburne’s farm manager. The trend toward high-density orchards, as they are called, is a way to radically maximize the output of a crop in a given year, he said.

Shelburne is one of 11 farms across the state delving into the farming technique as part of a new program, started in 2008, with the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension Service. Other farms participating in the Amherst-based program include Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow and Tougas Family Farm in Northborough.

A grant from the Massachusetts Fruit Growers Association financed the purchase of the trees, while the growers paid for the management and labor costs connected with the project. Each farm participating has roughly a 1-acre orchard devoted to high-density apple farming under the program.

The lure of this experimental form of apple growing is not just in the extraordinarily high yield, said Ted Painter, owner of Shelburne Farm. The trees are kept at a low height and their limbs are pruned, so all the energy of the plant is directed into the apples, which sometimes grow to larger sizes, he said.

Down in the chilly cellar below the orchard’s shop, Cumming, after rifling through a few crates filled with apples, extended in his palm a 1.5-pound honey crisp specimen - the size of a small pumpkin - from the new orchard.

Trees in a high-density orchard start producing larger numbers of apples in three years or so. Typically, a conventionally grown tree will start providing fruit in seven years, said Painter.

The shorter timeline means apple growers can expand the varieties of apples they deliver much more efficiently and more rapidly than in the past. Painter said Shelburne is already offering new varieties of honey crisp apples - the most coveted variety these days among many customers - along with Fuji apples, thanks to the high-density orchard.

Jon Clements, the coordinator of the UMass apple program, said the hope is to spur interest in high-density growing.

There is a risk-reward factor to the concept, he noted. The cost of buying more saplings is daunting, and, if the trees get knocked out by a storm or frost, the losses incurred can be more devastating than with traditional farming, he said.

The hope is that the program will better inform apple farmers about the pros and cons of high-density growing, said Clements.

“I think orchards will have to do it to stay competitive,’’ he said. “But it does take some capital. . . It does make it more risky but, still, that’s the future’’ of apple growing.

Painter said he likes the concept of higher density farming and plans to enlarge his high-density orchard at some point. He still has doubts about whether it will work as well for a pick-your-own orchard like the one he runs as it does for larger commercial apple operations, such as in Washington or Michigan, where high-density farming is evolving into the norm.

Will his clientele like picking apples from a smaller, sapling-type tree that doesn’t extend more than 10 feet off the ground? Painter isn’t certain yet.

“For pick-your-own, the question is: Will it work? That’s the question we are trying to find out,’’ he said.

Maurice Tougas, owner of Tougas Farm, said he has had high-density apple trees on his property in Northborough since 1992, so the latest UMass program is just an expansion of what he has already been doing for years.

Tougas said he thinks it can work for a pick-your-own orchard, depending on the type of clientele. The advantage is that you can provide more varieties that people may want, he said.

“There’s a certain segment of the population that will still like the big old standard trees,’’ said Tougas. “This doesn’t appeal to those people as much. For younger families, I think they like it because the fruit is closer to the ground.’’

The apple industry is an ever-evolving business, said Tougas, who said high-density orchards are only one component of his efforts to keep pace with the competition. For example, he said, he’s looking into buying hydraulic pruners from Italy, which will cut down on labor.

Eventually, Tougas predicted, apple orchards will be harvested by robots equipped with sensors to detect when the fruit is ripe.

“I think it’s inevitable that it will go in that direction.’’