by Karl H. Kazaks
RUSTBURG, VA — For the first time in over two years, Bill Beni experienced something most of the rest us tend to enjoy with some greater frequency — a good night’s sleep. Beni is the Farm Manager at 7K Farms, a new apple orchard in Campbell County. He’s overseen the planting of 235-acres of tall spindle orchard over the last two years and is guiding the planting of an additional 60-acres this year.
For Beni’s first 14 months he worked seven days a week with only the odd day off such as Christmas.
None of the farm staff, which counts over two-dozen in spring and summer, with about half of them staying on for the winter, had ever worked in an orchard before. So Beni had to train everyone on everything.
Sometimes, there was nobody willing or able to stay late to do extra work, so Beni would have to do it himself.
“That first year, there were times I’d be out on the tractor until 1 a.m.,” he said. “You just have to step it up and get it done. There was so much to accomplish in a short period of time.”
That led to more than a year of nights often with just four hours of sleep.
“When you take on a project of this size, even long after you get home after a long day your mind stays with it and you can’t sleep.”
That first year, the farm planted 200,000 trees – Gala, Honeycrisp, and Fuji – on about 170 acres. The whole process was an extremely quick ramp-up, with less than a year dedicated for site preparation and infrastructure development. But Beni likes a challenge. “One thing I really like doing is establishing orchards,” said Beni, who grew up in the southern Ontario fruit belt.
One way the project has been able to economize is by planting sleeping eyes rather than a full two-year old grafted tree.
Beni, who has prior experience in nurseries as well as orchards, thinks the sleeping eyes have done quite well. In contrast to planting a two-year old tree, with a root system which has been cut during digging, and which would experience transplant shock; he is able to grow the root system in place along with the tree, avoiding transplant shock.
He is even using sleeping eyes where replanting is needed (the orchard did experience some fire blight last year). Ideally he would have used more mature trees for replanting, but they weren’t available.
Because sleeping eyes need to be kept dormant prior to planting – and because the planting period that first year covered five weeks – 7K had to build a storage facility for holding the nursery stock. It has come in good use this year, as planting was extended by a wet spring.
The farm’s location in the southern part of central Virginia is warmer compared to Virginia’s major apple producing region around Winchester, and of course fruit producing states further to the north. That does provide some challenges.
The area is “a little warm,” Beni said, for Gala, which will make it harder to color up. But he’s compensated by using a red strain, Buckeye. The advantage is, harvest will be earlier and they’ll likely be done picking Galas at 7K before the growers around Winchester even start picking.
The farm has two strains of Fuji, Aztec and Vista. The Honeycrisp strain is Cameron Select. This is the Galas’ third year under leaf and the first year a sizeable harvest will be made. Last year, they picked 12 bins of Galas.
Beni has ordered a terrain-compensating picking platform for harvest. Each wheel on the platform has its own self-adjusting axle, which will help on the fields planted to a 13-degree slope. The farm already has a working platform for non-harvest orchard work.
The rows are 12 feet apart. Fujis are planted on four-foot spacing, Galas on three-foot spacing. Beni started by planting Honeycrisp on three-foot spacing, but since then has tightened that up to two-and-a-half foot spacing. That’s about 900 Fujis per acres and 1,210 Galas and Honeycrips per acre, with the closer-spaced Honeycrisp counting about 1,300 per acre.
Interplanted in the fruit trees are two types of pollinators, Snowdrift crabapple and Indian Summer crabapple. They are planted in a zig-zag pattern. The spacing is offset from row to row, so as you go down the middle of two rows there is a pollinator in every panel, on one side or the other.
The trellising, which was built after the irrigation was laid, uses 12-foot treated southern yellow pine, four or five inches in diameter through the line and five or six inches in diameter at the end. When a row is particularly long, they have either added bracing in the middle or put an end post in the middle and run two rows from it, to one side and the other.
Beni had grown high-density peaches and medium-density apples, but this is his first experience with tall spindle. He was familiar with the technique, though, having followed industry trends for years. “I had said to my wife, ‘I’m going to grow tall spindle.’ So I was very excited when this opportunity came along.” Tall spindle growing is known for its simple and aggressive pruning strategy and its use of training branches to trellis wires.
At 7K, all of the Fuji trees are trained to the trellis, using flexible wire, because Fujis won’t set fruit until year two unless trained. Gala, however, will set fruit on one-year wood, even if it is untrained. Beni did train a few rows of Gala, but found that the expense was going to be about $2 to $3 per tree. With 100,000 Gala trees, that was going to be a big cost – all to train branches that in a few years would be pruned.
So Beni made a management decision to work around training by using pruning. He still clips the trees to the trellis wires, then gets rid of stray upright branches and makes thinning cuts to let light into the tree.
“My thought was — Will I get a return from what we’ve invested that will surpass that investment? — With intensive fruit production, you’re trying to find the balance between vegetation and fruit.”
What’s more, the way you think about inputs changes. “You’ve got to think in cost per tree, not cost per acre. You’re not thinking in minutes and hours but seconds. You have to think that way.”
So far, the company’s decision to plant sleeping eyes, and Beni’s choice to forego training the branches of Gala – appear to have paid off. As of the beginning of the third year for the Galas, many of them are eight feet or taller, having grown four or more feet per year, and showing an impressive bloom.
Everything is pointing toward a successful first harvest – in only the third leaf. Come harvest time, the fruit will be moved from the field to refrigerated trailers, and then marketed by a packer.
To feed the trees, Beni has used soil applications of calcium nitrate and foliar sprays. This year he will also fertigate the trees.
A tall spindle orchard, to be successful, depends on a ready supply of irrigation water, Beni emphasized.
The Galas are planted on a variety of rootstock, including three M9 sublones: Nic 19, Nic 29, and M9 T-337. Some are on Bud 9 rootstock, as are the Honeycrisps. The Fujis are on Nic 19 rootstock.
“I’m really pleased with the Nic 29 trees,” Beni said. He did add, though, that until a track record of production has been established, “the jury’s still out.”
As vigorous as the Galas grew their first year, the Honeycrisps were less impressive, some not even making it to the first, two-foot, trellis wire. At pruning, Beni had his team cut them back aggressively, to stimulate growth. He also hilled up around their base to encourage root growth.
The Honeycrisps responded, growing about four feet last year. This year, he will defruit the Honeycrsips, to encourage them to get to the top, eight-foot, trellis wire. Next year they’ll be harvested lightly, and production will increase from there.
In addition to Beni, 7K depends on a good team of local help and some key supervisors. Guy Brubaker is the Field Supervisor, Lawrence Narehood is Assistant Manager, and Melanie Mahone is the Office Administrator. “They are a great group of people who do an amazing job,” Beni said.
Beni is also grateful for the willingness of the ownership to do things well and invest in this project. “It is great to have the confidence and backing necessary to see a project like this through,” he said.
Is tall spindle worth it? There’s a lot to that goes into installing a system like this.
But there are benefits, too. There’s hardly any ladder usage. The pruning strategy is quick and simple. And the yields can be large – 1,000, 1,200, maybe even 1,500 bushels per acre in a good year.
“We’re moving from establishment to production really fast,” Beni said. “In two years we’ve gone from a 16-inch stick in the ground to an eight-foot tree bearing fruit.”
A modern orchard takes root in central Virginia
by Karl H. Kazaks