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DANA — Terence Robinson knows apples. More important, he knows apple farmers.
On an overcast and cool morning in early February at Wayne Pace's orchard in Dana, Robinson guided growers through a lesson on thinning.
"The main goal is to show those that are still on the fence, if you just do these steps, lo and behold, four years down the road you'll have this beautiful orchard," he said.
Robinson acknowledged that growers might not be keen on the so-called "two-cut rule," which prescribes cutting the two fattest branches of three-year-old trees.
About 50 growers stood in a semi-circle around Robinson as he demonstrated the "limb renewal thinning." He asked the growers how many flower clusters they could count on a single branch. About 300, someone said. Well then, he said, if the farmer only needs 150 apples per tree, there is plenty of margin for pre-pruning.
"Even if you need 300 apples on each tree, you've still got a lot of thinning," he said. "You can cut out one or two branches every year without decreasing yield."
The two-cut rule is not easy to accept, he acknowledged. "Until you do it yourself, you're afraid of it," he said. "You're afraid it's going to get away from you."
Robinson spent two days at the annual apple school sponsored by the Blue Ridge Apple Growers. He brought to the Henderson County farmers a new approach that calls for high-quality trees with a small root stock, denser planting, trellising and aggressive pruning.
Born in El Paso, Texas, and raised on a fruit farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, Robinson is a professor of horticulture and nationally recognized researcher at Cornell University's Geneva Experiment Station. He focuses on improved orchard management practices to improve yield, fruit quality and profitability of apple, cherry, peach and pear orchards.
He specializes in high-density orchard planting systems, rootstocks, pruning and training, thinning and fertigation (fertilizing through irrigation). Robinson had a gift for communicating the science in an easily understandable way. The apple school drew positive feedback from the growers who attended on Wednesday at BRCC and Thursday at Pace's orchard.
"That was a good school, that was one of the best ones we've had," said Dana grower Tony Hill. "That is a good system. It costs a lot of money. That's the reason most people won't do it. It's so expensive but it pays you back earlier, you'll get your return quicker (because of higher yields)."
SUBHED: Denser planting
The system adds to the cost per acre in two ways. The grower has to buy a lot more trees to plant 1,000 per acre. And because they have small roots, the trees need trellis support.
"That is an initial high cost also," Hill said. "Between that and the cost of those trees, that makes a lot of growers say, uh uh. I've kind of had a mindset change. Matter of fact, I've got 6,000 honey crisp trees I'm going to start to set next week, and 3,000 cameos and that's the way I'm going to set 'em."
Hill plans a configuration of 557 trees per acre, not quite as dense as Robinson recommends. He has adopted other recommendations for higher yield.
"When a tree gets up 3 or 4 years old, you should start cutting the largest limbs out. It hurts to do it because you spent your time trying to grow that limb," he said. "But the limbs on an apple tree that have the very best apples are the limbs that are only two years old, and that's what he's shooting for, is to cut those old limbs out and let new limbs come in."
Marvin Owings, the apple specialist with the N.C. Agricultural Extension Service, said this year's apple school showed farmers the value of the "tall spindle system," using high quality trees, densely planted. Mechanized picking using motorized platforms between rows is a harvesting innovation that the county will see more of, too, he said. The denser planting of small-rooted trees also requires drip irrigation — "another expense that most growers aren't incurring," Owings said.
"It is a complete mindset change and most growers are not going to adapt to these changes overnight," he added. "But we hope over time as the older orchards are removed the growers will at least try this system."
A small number of farmers have started using the newer growing techniques, including Pace, Hill, Allan Henderson and Greg Nix.
Ten farmers from here signed up for more intense training in the orchard management practices at an apple school next month at Cornell. About half are younger farmers, Owings said.