Good Fruit Grower

December 2013

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Good Fruit Grower of the Year LEARN by doing Jeff Colombini has learned the hard way that not all growing techniques fit his conditions. by Melissa Hansen herries and apples are both well suited for California's Lodi district, located in northern San Joaquin Valley. Jeff Colombini of Lodi Farming, Inc., grows about 500 acres of apples and 300 acres of cherries in an area marked by having cooler summer temperatures than other locations in the same valley. For many decades, Lodi district growers enjoyed being the first cherries harvested in the United States and received a premium for their early market window. Quality and yield weren't as important then because retailers were eager for the first cherries of the season, Colombini explained. Jeff Colombini, who's passionate about horticulture and fruit trees, discusses what he's learned But when Colombini took over at the and the importance of trying out new techniques borrowed from other regions. He often splits a farm management company in 1992, he block in half to test a new concept, following the fruit through the packing process. knew fruit quality would be an important factor in the cherry industry's future. He made the first of his many trips to the Pacific Northwest in 1993 to learn how to improve cherry quality. "I'd heard a lot about represents a small sliver of the nation's apple production. The state is Northwest cherry growers and the quality of fruit they were growing," Colombini said. ranked fifth among leading apple-producing states, but is the num"Northwest growers were doing a better job than us back then because they had to. We ber-two apple exporter behind Washington. About one third of the crop were first in the market, so we could get away with selling less than stellar fruit. is exported, one third consumed in local markets, and the remainder "When I was a kid, we packed cherries under a shade tree without sold across the country. hydrocooling. I once heard an Oregon cherry grower say that 'California Apple production is more diffigrowers could have painted rocks red then and still been able to sell cult in California than locations in the them.'" Northwest, Colombini believes, noting But dramatic changes have occurred in California's sweet cherry that growers must intensively manage production in the last couple of decades. orchards. "You need to be using producNew varieties are more heat tolerant, have lower chilling requiretive orchard training systems, but also ments, and more importantly, don't spur and double with high summer techniques like overhead cooling for suntemperatures. Cherries are now grown from Bakersfield to Yuba City, burn protection and reflective material for and other nontraditional places. More than 40,000 acres of cherries are color enhancement." planted statewide. Lodi is no longer first. Why bother with such a challenging "With growing districts south of Lodi now coming in first, I've had to crop? —Jeff Colombini learn how to grow cherries like the Northwest does," he said. It's all about timing, he said. "We fill a Colombini grows Chelan, Index, Bing, Coral Champagne, and Rainier tiny market niche, but it's an important cherry varieties. Trees are trained to the steep leader system with four to six leaders. one. Our advantage is that we can provide retailers with a fresh apple— He has new varieties, rootstocks, and training systems under test in his experimental before Washington starts. When we come on, retailers have a choice of block, including his version of a newly developed system by Washington State Univera California apple that's a few days old, a Chilean apple six months old, sity researchers called the UFO (Upright Fruiting Offshoots). California growers, like or Washington apples 11 months old. We want to get the crop picked, their northern counterparts, are searching for dwarfing, precocious rootstocks to grow packed, shipped and sold before Washington comes on strong." more pedestrian-friendly trees. Colombini grows the state's mainstay apple varieties—Gala, Fuji, Of the 20 different rootstocks in his trial, one of the more promising dwarfing stocks Granny Smith, and Cripps Pink. Gala, the first variety picked, does well is Gisela 12. It's one of the least dwarfing of the Gisela rootstocks, but one of the more because retailers are eager for the new crop. California shippers aim to productive ones. He's found that G.5 and G.6 are too dwarfing in his soil and climate move the variety quickly before Washington's Gala crop hits full steam. conditions, and trees runt out after a few years. Also, Gala fit a labor window in early August when the labor supply is California's apple industry, which annually ships from two to three million boxes, more available. "Our niche is built on being early, so anything that delays maturity is a problem for us." 50 DECEMBER 2013 GOOD FRUIT GROWER PHOTOS BY T.J. MULLINAX C

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