Pa. Young Grower Alliance tours So. Delaware
Members of the Young Grower Alliance from Adams and Berks counties in Pennsylvania were welcomed on a Southern Delaware Tour on June 20.
Their first stop was Bennett Orchards in Frankford.
After lunch, the young growers headed for Adams County Nursery Inc.’s apple operation in Ellendale.
ACN was founded in Pennsylvania in 1905 by Henry Gideon Baugher, who observed there would be a need for high-quality nursery stock for a growing industry in his area.
Eric Haller and his cousins Jen Benton, Allison Crowell, Adam Baugher and John Paul Baugher are fifth-generation nurserymen at ACN.
His mother, Julie Baugher Haller, is the only one of the fourth generation still working in the nursery operation.
Based in Aspers, Pa., the nursery sells trees: apple, peach, apricot, nectarine, pear and plum, mostly to commercial orchards and pick-your-own operations.
In Pennsylvania, the nursery has 300 acres of orchard ground and 15 acres of nursery stock.
For more than 20 years, ACN has produced grafted apple trees in Delaware because of fire blight. ACN uses resistant rootstocks that help prevent tree death from rootstock blight. Roots develop easily in Sussex County’s sandy soil.
ACN owns 350 acres and leases or swaps use of other land with farmers. ACN rotate fields so that they do not return to a field within 10 years.
Sean Callahan oversees production in Delaware. He and Eric Haller met the young farmers in Ellendale and showed them apple trees in three stages of production.
“We put root stock in a field in mid-April,” Callahan said. “We can plant 650,000 plants in a nine-hour day.”
There are 18 types of rootstock that are resistant to fire blight.
ACN works closely with Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to obtain virus-free stock, which comes from Washington State. Haller said, “That practice dates back to my grandfather, who established the first block orchard near the Farm Show Complex.”
ACN has 26 laborers, all from Guatemala here on visas. The average worker has been here four or five years. The starting wage is $7.25 per hour with bonuses offered.
“We used to do piece rate, but we noticed that sacrificed quality,” Haller said. “Piece rate did not work out for either party.”
Workers return to the field containing rootstock the following summer and rub the sand off. In August, cut budwood is grafted onto the rootstock. A bud appears everywhere a leaf grew, but the leaves have been removed from the budwood sticks measuring less than 18 inches. A bud is cut from the budwood at an angle and carefully matched to a slit made in the rootstock.
“You’ve got to match the cambium layers,” Callahan stressed. He likes to see a faint green line that is the cambium.
A plastic strip made in South Africa is wrapped around the grafted area for protection.
In a nine-hour day, two men can do 5,000 grafts of the same variety.
Apples bud about the third week of July in Pennsylvania. The budded sticks are processed there, then sent to Delaware in coolers. Within 10 days, workers will have grafted 250,000 buds.
One of the young growers asked what protocols were used to keep varieties separate. “We manage carefully,” Callahan said. “We do a lot of things to minimize mix-ups.” One method is to apply a color-coded bit of paint to the scion above the graft.
In a good year, 90 to 95 percent of the grafts take. Weather — such as three days of rain or a 60 mph wind — takes a toll.
The tape is left on for five weeks, until a callus can be seen. The graft stays uncovered all winter.
The young farmers visited a field with chest-high saplings that will be dug this fall using a J-blade pull behind that is 24 inches wide. Starting at an outside row, the blade digs beneath the tree so it can be lifted out and the soil shaken off.
The bare root plants are stripped of leaves and sent to Pennsylvania where they will be kept in cold storage until it’s time to ship them for planting.
The finished field contains trees that were grafted last season.
As the trees grow, they are fastened to a fiberglass stake by, of all things, hair clips. By the time the trees are a few feet tall, they need fastening again.
Five or six years ago, ACN built a mobile platform to transport workers through the fields as they were fastening these trees.
The platform will drive itself, using GPS, but it is only as efficient as the person running it. If it comes too close to a tree, it will correct its path.
Speed is important, so many feet per minute. “We’re still learning how to use it,” Haller said.
The first day, production really increased because the crews not on the platform tried to beat it down the row.
By the second day, workers had seen the value and wanted to be on it.
Weeds are controlled by applying a pre-emergent in the spring with a hooded box sprayer equipped with GPS. It sprays between the rows. The rest of the weeding is done by hand. Once the trees are up, there is less of a weed problem.
Haller said, “We prefer a field with pivot irrigation so we can tie in our trickle irrigation. It’s expensive, but worth it.”
A “spider” of pipes located at the pump allows the growers to create zones that maximize output per minute.
The set-up shown to the young growers pumps 950 gallons per minute from a 70-foot well.
Zones can be changed remotely from anywhere. “We’re working with a company that provides pressure-sensing valves. You can be anywhere and get a pressure reading. If a pipe blows, you get an alert, and can shut off that zone,” Haller said.
A weather station provides raw data which he hopes will help them make better decisions about watering.
He added, “We don’t pay for water now, but in the future…? We want to put the water where it is needed.”
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