Apple growers say good growing weather means they are expecting a bumper crop this year, but when the pick-your-own customers get to the orchards they may notice some changes.
Growers seeking higher yields and easier picking are reshaping the look of the New England apple orchard.
Brookdale Farms in Hollis is the biggest apple orchard in New Hampshire. Tyler Hardy, a sixth generation grower on the farm, manages the wholesale side of that business, and was recently elected president of the New Hampshire Fruit Growers Association.
“A lot of the growers are twice my age since I’m only 31,” he explains, as he drives a farm truck between the rows of apple trees. “So it’s kind of tough to change some of their growing methods that I’ve learned the past few years, they kind of think I’m crazy.”
The orchard at the start of the drive looks just like the New England orchard of your imagination. Hardy’s grandfather planted the trees in this part of the orchard 45 years ago. “This is their last season. We’re pushing ten acres of this block out this year. I ordered 11,000 trees for 2018 to be planted here,” Hardy says.
“I’m going show you some of the plantings that I’m trying and some of the risks that I’m taking,” he continues, laughing, “but it’s more of trial, and I like a challenge.”
The new trees he’ll plant will have a decidedly different look: they’ll be closer together and will only be allowed to grow upward, because they’ll be pruned heavily when they try to grow sideways.
“I can keep those trees under control and still get quality fruit,” Hardy explains, noting that by “pruning hard” he lets more sunlight in to the tree’s canopy, and allows more even spraying of fungicides onto the fruit.
“My slogan that I’m trying to sell as the young president of the New Hampshire Fruit Growers is ‘small limbs make small trees,’ I’ve got to get a t-shirt made up for that or something,” he says.
The result is thin, gangly looking trees, packed in tight, but which are allowed to grow up as high as 12 feet tall. This is known as a tall spindle orchard, and it's growing in popularity in the big apple producing states like Washington and New York.
Production from an orchard like this can be more than four times what you get from an old school New England Orchard. Hardy says he’s hoping for 2,000 bushels of apples per acre. And what’s more, it means apple picking – which is all about tall ladders and bushel baskets-- can start to become mechanized.
Today the crew picking apples at Brookdale is demonstrating an Italian machine. Two workers stand on high platforms picking apples off the tops of trees, and two more walk in front getting the apples down low. They all load them onto a conveyor belt, which gently lays the apples into the bin.
The most impressive feature is that none of those workers is driving.
“He’s the one with controls, but it’s actually self-propelled,” Hardy explains. “It’s got sensors to go down the orchard but he just controls the speed where it goes.”
Using the machine makes it so the same crew can pick around 30 percent more per day.
But you do have to wonder, will this be a turnoff to consumers? Especially those coming to pick their own apples who maybe want to scramble around in the trees.
Hardy doesn’t think so. He says the new style of orchard is more “user friendly.”
“I think having smaller trees in pick-your-own is great, because you have a lot of families and if a young kid can just reach up and grab an apple from the ground it makes the whole experience more worthwhile and more memorable,” he says.