Apple growers shift to high-density orchards against rising labour costs
Published Monday, June 16, 2014 7:05PM EDT
The approach to growing high quality fruit in our region continues to change.
More and more orchards are switching to smaller trees, which produce more fruit.
“Today we are putting in posts for a trellis system for a new high-density planting my brother and I put in this spring,” explains Greg Ardiel as he stands in his father’s apple orchards near Thornbury.
He and his brother Liam grew up working in their orchards and they've set out on their own to follow in his footsteps as apple growers. But this generation is doing things differently.
They’ve planted more than 1,300 trees on each acre of land here. Twenty years ago, that was unheard of.
“I started planting this farm in 2010, this year we will finish it,” Ardiel says. “We originally started planting high density back in 1994. That was a 14-by-five planting, which is 700 trees to an acre. As we learn more about it and get more confident we have increased that density.”
The trees in these new orchards will stay very small so they need a trellis system to hold them up, much like grape vines. The trees will start producing apples in just three years.
More and more farmers are adopting this new way of growing apples because it results in higher yields of top quality fruit that fetches top dollar in the market place. The smaller trees are also easy to reach from the ground, which helps reduce labour costs.
The downside is this type of high density orchard is expensive to establish. The small trees are also vulnerable to wildlife and drought, so irrigation and deer fencing are needed too. Even so, Liam Ardiel says growers are being forced to find efficiencies to offset increases in the minimum wage.
“It’s cheaper to plant the old style of orchard but you can't afford the labour that it takes on the route we are headed with labour,” he says. “Just the difference in the costs of pruning and thinning, all of the basic orchard jobs.”
The Ardiels say there is a new generation of apple growers starting to get established and this is what orchards will look like from now on.
“I think everybody is seeing the benefits of it,” says Greg Ardiel, “and nobody is looking back the other way anymore.”