By Timothy J. Smith
If you honestly analyze the economic returns from individual blocks on your orchard, (and you should) it may have become painfully obvious that some older blocks are not even covering the “out of pocket” costs of production. As production of apples has increased in Washington, our standard of excellence has risen. Much of what once qualified as Washington extra fancy grade is sold now as a lesser grade. Many of those high quality strains of Red Delicious that you planted 30 years ago, or those Galas and Fujis that you planted in the early 1990’s are not considered red enough to pack in a premium grade. They need special fertilizing and pruning to produce the grade that newer strains do without apparent effort.
You may have already started planting a few blocks of the newer varieties, or your neighbor has, so you know that returns can be double or triple what your older block receives. You may have to do something positive to stay in business. Move up, move on, or move out.
However, you may have a problem renovating your orchard. When you plant trees on your property, they do not grow well. They grew much better when you first planted the block. You hear about high early yields that others receive in young orchards, and know that you must get early yields to cover your planting investment. Is it possible that your site does not qualify for replanting under these new production standards? Maybe it would be easier to retire, rather than replant. Maybe you should sell and move to an area where there is “new soil” where trees grow well.
When the soil became unproductive, nomads once struck their tents, packed their belongings and moved on to better pastures. You may not consider relocation a good idea. For most people, an orchard is more than a business, it’s a home. You live on your site, and prefer to stay there.
The soil may seem a bit “tired”, and newly planted trees may grow poorly, but the site is otherwise world-class. The summer and winter temperatures are ideal for apple and pear production, frost is controllable, and late spring and summer rains are infrequent, so cherries are an option. Hail is so infrequent that insurance is not a good option.
Where else will you find a site that is so well suited for fruit production? They are not making any more sites like yours. Your site gives you a natural, long-range competitive advantage; and besides all that, your family already lives there and doesn’t want to move.
Some growers around the world must spend extra time and money to try to change their orchard environments to try to match what you receive on your site for free. Getting young trees to grow properly may be the only horticultural problem holding your orchard out of its world-class potential. If you could be sure that new trees would grow and produce well, you could start rotating out of your blocks that have unacceptable quality and production, replacing them with improved strains or varieties. These new fruit trees could provide better support your family and make your orchard a better long-term investment. If you wish to pass the orchard on to your children, they may be able to support themselves (and you?) on a thriving, modern orchard. If you decide to sell it to someone else, the trees could be a valuable part of the sale, rather than something that will be removed and replaced. Can trees grow properly in old orchards? What are people doing that makes trees thrive in some areas, while trees on similar sites sit and sulk for years? There must be something that makes the difference, as too many people are succeeding under too many situations for luck to play an important role. It’s time to investigate what others have done to ensure healthy trees and high production on “old” orchard sites.
High quality growth of young trees on a replanted site is usually the reward for well planned and carried out site preparation. Taking care of only three-fourths of the vital steps will not often lead to success. Taking care of these interacting factors falls under the heading of “management.”
Below are listed some topics that may increase your chances that the replanted orchard will thrive.
SITE / SOIL PREPARATION:
PLANTING THE TREE:
If we treated young trees as we do vegetables, they would thrive. The payoff, or the economic impact of failure is apparent in a season of growing carrots or corn. We have to wait a few years to see if everything went right when we plant fruit trees. Few row crops would grow without careful yearly soil preparation, disease control, insect and weed management, balanced fertilization, and careful irrigation. Should we offer less to a crop we will count on to support us for the next 20 years?
You should never plan to plant more trees than you can properly plant or tend. You will never regret having planted trees that have the potential to grow and produce well for as long as you wish to leave them in the ground.