By CINDY LADAGE
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — It seems so easy to pick a few trees, plant them, wait for them to grow and voila! – an orchard. But there is much decision-making that can make or break the profit for a small businessperson.
Luckily for those seeking advice, experts were at the Illinois Specialty Crop Conference last week to help. Matt Moser of Moser Fruit Tree Sales said while the title of his presentation was “Understanding Nurseries, Rootstocks and Varieties,” he really calls it “Matt’s advice to newbie fruit growers.”
Before placing a tree in the ground, he reiterated what another speaker said in the opening presentation, that a grower needs to “start with a marketing and business plan first.” He said the reasons producers decide to start an orchard vary. These include wanting to expand existing products, revisiting land not suitable for the existing crop and wanting to use labor more efficiently.
When deciding to plant an orchard, first is what fruit will be planted. “What is my market? This is the most important question you need to answer,” Moser said. “We all know if you don’t have a market for your production, then you have to eat it.”
Orchard variations to consider include agricultural tourism and entertainment, roadside stands or farmers’ markets and U-pick orchards, among others. Moser advised considering one’s competition and unique market niches.
There are a series of these considerations, too, such as, what kind of soil is there; is there enough elevation; and what is the frost and freeze history and the grower’s hardiness zone. “Land characteristics can be a limitation if you have drainage issues,” said Jim Eckert of Eckert Orchard. “In Illinois things want to grow bigger, so getting to know your soil is important.”
Moser pointed out, “Ask, do I have the necessary financial and capital resource for the long term? Am I willing to make the long-term dollar investment? Is my spouse?” This endeavor takes years before paying back.
When considering what equipment to purchase, the producer must decide what is essential and whether to buy, rent or modify. Keeping up on government regulations is important. Moser said they can vary by locality.
Once the site, money and marketing are established, next is tree selection. “Work through the business plan and the piece of land, then go to the nurseryman,” Eckert said.
There was much discussion about pros and cons of dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. Apple trees, especially, illustrate the choice. Eckert said, “Dwarf trees do not have enough rootstock to support themselves. Once you decide to go to the dwarf high-density, you have the cost of support; you may need irrigation and high management.”
Semi-dwarf trees cost less to plant and usually have roots that support themselves, but take longer to provide fruit – thus, longer to realize commercial gain.
What fruit type is being selected? Choices include apple, pear, peach, nectarine, cherry and other stone fruits. “Semi-dwarf trees are good for mixed fruit orchards. You can make more mistakes with semi-dwarf than dwarf,” Moser said.
Planning at least a year or two in advance is better, he said, when obtaining rootstock, because fruit tree rootstock sells out often a year in advance.
“It takes two years to produce a commercial fruit tree from basic rootstock to tree,” he explained. “Nurseries are farming a crop just like fruit, with just as many potential downfalls. They are reducing their risk, just like everyone else.”
Moser touched on research and how investments for new varieties have input costs that force the developer to recoup research costs, raising the price. If a tree is still under a patent it cannot be used to propagate new trees for commercial or personal orchards.
Once trees are selected, next comes the planting. Eckert said when planting dwarf apple trees, they need to be manipulated to receive the maximum amount of sun: “You want to capture the sunlight for an apple tree to flower. It will not flower in the shade. Row orientation, plant north/south and get higher yields,” when possible.
Planning ahead is a game that needs to be played correctly. A grower doesn’t want trees too close together, so there will be enough sunshine and space to maneuver between them, but they also don’t want wasted space.
“Crowding is a death sentence in apples; you cannot overcrowd,” Eckert said. “Prune as little as possible; it delays cropping.”
Peaches are different from apples. “You don’t need support systems. Peaches are much less complex,” he explained.
The decision in Illinois when it comes to peaches is, how far north is the dividing line to plant them? Eckert said the line seems to be moving north, but attention to soil type and freeze information is paramount because subzero temperatures kill peach tree flowers before they’re crop.
Eckert said he only lets his peach trees grow as high as 5-6 feet. “Peach trees live fast and die young. You want to train the tree to have wide-angle branches.”