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Cultivar scrutiny vital for tree fruit industry

“Somehow the industry has to evaluate the 300 new cultivars we’ve had since 1980 and discipline ourselves to dump the ‘dogs’ before new orchards are planted.”

That was the blunt message for California peach and nectarine growers from veteran University of California, Davis Pomologist Ted DeJong.

He spoke at a winter tree fruit meeting in Parlier about various efforts to restore profitability for the industry by improving efficiency in production practices.

But DeJong also said that he — and many in the industry — can’t see any hope of sufficient progress without “a strategic restructuring to increase the value of the fruit that is sold.”

Citing freestone peach data for the last couple of decades, he said labor costs are up at least 100 percent, costs for fuel and other inputs are up more than 70 percent, while the increase in the price of fruit has risen well under 50 percent.

“We can continue to work on fertilization, thinning, pruning, and reducing tree size, but let’s not kid ourselves. We are only nibbling at the edges. The real problem is the industry needs restructuring,” he said.

While California has the best growing conditions in the world for the fruit, he said its reputation for quality does not bear that out, and in fact, growers are generally well aware of the less-than-optimal quality that is shipped.

“So by restructuring I don’t mean pulling out acreage, waiting for 10 years for the market to come back, and replanting. Somehow the industry has to control itself with the planting of ideal cultivars, including those meeting the large size fruit the market now clearly demands.

“You can’t start out with a cultivar that has a low size potential and agronomically make a large size fruit with it,” he warned, adding that the industry must select the best performers before new acreage is planted.

Otherwise, without standards to follow, growers will face an inevitable “political backlash” of reluctance to pull high acreage of under-performing varieties. At that point, any standards are likely to be lowered to avoid pulling out orchards.

A typical scenario: one grower plants 100 acres of a new, promising variety, only to have his neighbors do the same, all before the true performance of the variety is known. Three years later, all are reluctant to remove that much acreage.

“I can’t tell you particularly how to do it, but I’m just saying growers should know whether new cultivars are going to meet market standards, before the fact.”

DeJong went on to say some industry leaders believe that less than 10 percent of new varieties released actually become “major winners.” The remaining 90 percent or so makes for a tremendous gamble.

The industry, he said, once planted new varieties simply because they were thought to be better. “I think that is the exception, and we have to do a realistic assessment of what is the marginal gain we think we can achieve by planting a new variety.”

In his discussion of strategies in reducing tree height to save labor costs, Kevin Day, Tulare County farm advisor, said he was not advocating that growers top their trees to 8 feet to save labor costs typically by 30 percent to 40 percent.

“The purpose of this talk is to introduce you to a concept which you can discuss later to see if your orchard would fit it,” he explained.

Growers often hesitate to consider shorter trees because they will lose yield, but Day said yield is also lost in pruning, thinning, and packing, and although production is less, quality for market demand of larger fruit is addressed.

Key to the shorter trees is making certain of their ability to intercept 70 percent of the sunlight and produce adequate numbers of quality fruit.

Among factors to remember are: vigor is a function of genetics and the environment, not overall height, and heavy pruning will perpetuate vigor.

A one-time topping will help reduce dormant pruning costs in many orchards, and a retro-fit to lower trees is best performed on trees of five to eight years of age. Top them prior to dormant pruning.

“If you are looking to establish a short-tree orchard from day one,” Day said, “you can do it between the first and fourth leaf. You want to fill the space and eliminate early heading cuts to manage vigor. And very critically, fill in the blanks at 8 to 10 feet. You can let it grow past the target height for one year.”

Day also said the older the wood, the less vigorous response from topping. “So two-year-old wood will not give you the same vigorous response as one-year-old wood, and three-year-old wood is better.”

Since many tree fruit growers have turned to alfalfa, corn, or small grains to occupy ground after pulled orchards, or simply to improve their cash flow at different times of the year, Steve Wright, Tulare County farm advisor, was on hand to talk about the benefits of agronomic crops.

“Rotation to some of these crops can help in reduction of nematodes and some soilborne diseases, and they can all help in weed management. Wheat, barley, triticale, and alfalfa roots break down and provide improved water infiltration,” Wright said.

Among the alternatives, he said small grain silage may have some attraction, with prices last year at $40 to $42 per ton and average yields on productive ground of 18 to 29 tons per acre.

Silage comes off in early May, uses one to two less irrigations than grain, needs less nitrogen, and does not have harvesting costs for growers since it is brokered with silage choppers.

Several varieties producing 25 to 29 tons per acre are available and will perform on very productive ground with adequate manure and good management.

Although recent short-rainfall seasons have curbed outbreaks of rust on small grains, typical spring rains can bring on significant problems with the disease.

“The foundation for dealing with rust is a resistant variety, and we have a list that you can pick from for resistant and moderately resistant varieties,” Wright said.

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