Above the fruiting plain

06/01/2006 02:00:00 AM

Upright wall trellis system reduces labor while boosting cherry fruit quality

By Renee Stern
Contributing Editor

Cherry orchards of the future may be rows of single fruiting walls down which workers drive mechanical harvesters and pruning platforms.

Northwest apple growers and California peach growers already have incorporated fruiting walls' higher density and greater uniformity than conventional orchards into their operations. Now, Washington state and Michigan researchers are adapting the concept to cherries.

By training cherries onto a trellis to create angled or vertical fruiting walls, growers narrow their management units from a tree to a single fruiting upright and repeat that uniformity throughout the row, says Matt Whiting, assistant horticulturist at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.

"I want a system where labor inputs are not as complicated or physically demanding," says Travis Allan, orchard operations manager for Allan Bros. Inc. in Naches, Wash. "I hope to get (pruning) down to one guy on the ground with loppers."

Fruiting walls have the greatest potential to incorporate new technology, with mechanical-assist equipment and machine harvesters topping the list, Whiting says.

Labor, especially at harvest, is cherry growers' single biggest expense. With labor shortages also a major concern, innovations that increase worker productivity garner plenty of interest.

Bob Harris of Harris Farms Inc. in Moxee, Wash., focuses on mechanization, but says engineering the machines is only part of the task. Without a complementary orchard system, harvest aids and mechanical harvesters won't be cost-effective.

It's a race to produce a working model "before it gets to the point where we don't have enough people to pick the crop," Harris says.

Mechanization also is spurring research in Michigan for both fresh-market sweet cherries and tart cherries for processors, says Greg Lang, horticulture professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Last summer, Lang began brainstorming harvester designs with MSU horticulture professor Jim Flore and research specialist Richard Ledebuhr. A prototype tractor-pulled, beside-the-row harvester showed enough promise to divert tests into fruiting walls.

Whiting has teamed with Allan, Harris and other growers in three years' work to train fruiting wood into vertical or angled uprights. Initial trials created walls at 55- to 65-degree angles, with vertical fruiting uprights spaced about 18 inches apart.

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