High-density orchard budding in Plainfield
By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Plainfield - posted Wed., Apr. 3, 2013
Spring is apple grower Robert Barbuto's favorite season. It's pruning time at his high-density orchard off Tarbox Road in Plainfield, where 500 trees are planted on one acre of land. Barbuto's trees are dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties, so he can work on them from the ground. No ladders are necessary here. The trees are spaced a mere 4 feet apart along lines of wires that hold limbs in place. Ten feet separate one row from another.
The high-density model is what researchers at Penn State and Cornell University have been working on for decades. With proper soil conditions, pest management, vigorous varieties and sufficient irrigation, Penn State researcher Rob Crassweller claims that it's becoming common to see densities of 500 to 1,000 trees an acre. What's equally important to Barbuto are the claims that his acre might one day produce 500 bushels of apples in a growing season.
The Cornell study looked at an irrigated acre planted in Honeycrisp and Fuji varieties. “They harvested 500 bushels from that one acre,” Barbuto said. “That's amazing. That's what we're hoping to do here.”
Barbuto's trees stretch out in 10 neat rows in land in front of his house. Wires run between posts at either end of each row. Branches are connected to these wires and trained to grow along them. The system makes for an orderly orchard, easier to maintain, irrigate, and harvest than traditional orchards.
“I call it the perfect two-man orchard,” Barbuto said of the high-density orchard. He and brother-in-law Martin LeSage have been putting in two hours of pruning a day. There is always something to do. Come harvest time, they'll be out there considerably longer. “We'll live out here,” he said. “Our friends come by and help.”
The orchard is all about making modern fruit science practical and profitable. Some of Barbuto's trees yielded fruit in their first season, an unusual accomplishment. Many apple trees take five years to come to fruition. Tree size and row design make it possible to harvest from the ground, saving on labor and insurance costs. The pruning in spring and summer insures that fruit get as much sunlight on them as possible, a necessary ingredient for proper coloring.
Even the bees like the arrangement. “When bees pollinate these trees they are 90 percent more likely to go down the row rather than across the row,” Barbuto said. “We're so small and dense, when the trees bloom, it looks like 10 different varieties of bees are out there.” And deer have left them alone. “They don't like the wires,” he said.
Barbuto has already ordered 50 Macoun trees for 2014. His customers are crazy for them. He'll plant new trees where others have failed or where weather has destroyed them. Tropical Storm Irene took about a dozen trees. He added on a cold storage unit that can hold up to 600 bushels of apples. He hopes that will lead to more fresh fruit sale rather than sale for processing. The return on investment is better.
A 280-foot deep water well provides 40 gallons a minute to the orchard. “It's outstanding,” he said. “I can irrigate this whole thing with one shot.” In two years he's run more than 82,000 gallons from it.
"This is the direction most orchards are moving in,” Barbuto said. “It's revolutionizing the business.” He pointed to a cluster of buds on the trained branches of a tree. “That's a bushel of apples,” he said. “The winter is over. It's exciting to see the buds.”