Apples high density production
Apple production in Norfolk County has evolved impressively over the years, thanks in part to developments at the Simcoe Research Station.
Apple researcher John Cline said traditional trees were large with wider spacings and lower density orchard production. In the 1950s and 60s dwarfing rootstock produced smaller trees planted more closely together in narrower rows.
But a major shift recently has been the introduction of high density orchards supported by wire trellises which reduced the vegetation and allowed for less shading. The more sunlight resulted in earlier apples with better colour and also made for easier pruning and picking
As of 2019, Haldimand-Norfolk has 2074 acres of apples with a farm gate value of $14,504,000. Production has remained relatively stable over the past four years.
A big issue is labour which will continue to be a factor into the future.
In response, growers and researchers are looking to increased mechanization which requires uniform tree structure about three to four metres high allowing for mobile platforms for pruning and harvest.
He added that researchers continue to look for disease and pest resistant varieties.
Today, consumers want more variety, better quality and increased crispness of the apple. While traditional varieties such as the McIntosh and Delicious remain popular, the best sellers are Ambrosia, Gala and Honey Crisp.
Chris Hedges, a first generation apple grower from the Waterford area, recalled that free standing trees with about 150 trees per acre, were prevalent in the 1990s. He said the larger tree canopies required a lot of management, including pruning and picking.
“We needed an easier way to get the fruit into the bin,” he said.
At the time, about half the crop went for fresh market, while the others went for juice. However, today there is less demand for processed apples.
The introduction of smaller trees resulted in higher production and better quality fruit, as well as easier picking. But it also required more tree management and irrigation.
Hedges currently grows 300 acres with about 1500 trees to the acre supported by posts and wires.
“It’s looks like a vineyard now,” he said.
Hedges added that harvesting of the smaller trees is easier and requires fewer pickers. As well, modern storage keeps the apples in good condition for longer periods.
In addition to the fresh market, Cline said, there has been a big growth in North America for hard cider apples. The Ontario Craft Cider Association was formed about 10 years ago to represent the growing trend.
He said the cider industry is looking more for flavour than potential alcohol content. Craft cider makers want varieties with taste and aroma. European apples are currently in demand for the cider market.
Some growers still use “grounders” fallen from the tree, but processors are increasingly concerned about bacteria and rot so the Ontario industry is still looking for hand-picked apples.
Cline said there has been a consolidation of the local apple production from about 100 growers in the Norfolk Apple Growers Association to only five or six large operations, along with some independent growers such as Hedges
There’s a current push to mechanization prompted by a dependency on labour which has proved to be tenuous by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel sorry for the workers and growers,” Cline said. “It’s been a tough year and much more expensive.”