Good Fruit Grower

December 2013

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o online to to see a video of Jeff Colombini talking about his work as a grower. G Open door (Continued from page 49) The lease model has worked well for Colombini, who admits that he would never be able to farm such a large amount of land on his own—and do it successfully. "I'd probably be able to only farm about a third of what we're doing," he commented. Popular orchards This Gala apple block, planted in 2011, was trained to the V-trellis system from the start and didn't need conversion from the central leader. Cherry, walnut, and apple trees in the Lodi area are planted on berms because of the cool, wet springs and heavy, clay soils. Cripps Pink (also sold under the Pink Lady trademark) is another good fit for California, he said, noting that fruit have a balanced sugar-to-acid ratio when picked and don't require several weeks of cold storage to improve eating quality. Colombini has several proprietary varieties under trial, including a number of Honeycrisp strains. Colombini has borrowed techniques from the Northwest to improve his apple quality, as well as to grow large, high-quality cherries. "Nobody knew how to grow apples here in the 1970s and 80s," he said. "We were emulating the Northwest. It was monkey see, monkey do, and we were implementing techniques from other regions before we really understood the growing differences and challenges in California." He pointed to sunburn as an example of regional differences. "Sunburn in California occurs because of hot temperatures, but in the Northwest, high ultraviolent radiation is also a factor. We both get sunburn, but for different reasons. We've learned that evaporative overhead cooling works better for us than sunburn protectants." Rootstocks are another example. Malling 9, a semidwarfing rootstock, is widely used in the Northwest. In California, M.7 is the rootstock of choice because M.9 delays maturity. "Our niche is built on being early, so anything that delays maturity is a problem for us." Learn by doing The motto of his college alma mater, Cal Poly, is 'Learn by doing.' It's a principle Colombini applies to growing as he learns what does best in his conditions. "There are certain things that we have just had to figure out for ourselves," he said, adding that mistakes will be made and he's learned things the hard way. The central leader is one of Colombini's learning experiences. The late Buck Lewis and his son Mark of Sierra Hills Packing, modern-day California apple-growing pioneers, traveled to the Northwest in the early years (1970s-80s) An example of a Gala block that was converted from the central leader to the V-trellis system. The conversion process has taken several years, but now, 95 percent of Lodi Farming's apple blocks are the V-trellis. to learn orchard training systems. Colombini said they brought the central leader training system to California, and it was widely adopted in orchards planted 20 years ago. He's spent the last several years converting his central leader orchards to the V-trellis system. Of Lodi Farming's 500 acres of apples, he's down to the last 25 acres that await conversion. Some of the converted blocks also were grafted to newer strains during the conversion process, including many of the Gala blocks updated to the Buckeye strain. Colombini found that under their growing conditions, the central leader results in trees that are too vigorous. "We just can't get the production on a central leader that we can on a V because of the light penetration," he said. "Nor can we get the color with a central leader." Pruning is also easier in V-trellis systems, and trees are better suited for platforms and mechanical harvesting equipment. "With the central leader, we had to use reflective fabric in all the orchards to help color the lower hanging fruit," Colombini added. "Now, I only use reflective covers in Pink Lady [Cripps Pink] and Fuji." Conversion to a V-trellis is an ugly process. In the first year, uprights or limbs are allowed to grow out the bottom of the tree. Colombini aims to bring out four to five whorls or branches for each side, giving the tree eight to ten scaffolds or leaders. In the second year, after harvest, the central leader is cut out of the middle and additional training wires are added. Conversion is a one- to two-year process before the tree is back in full production, depending on whether scion wood also is changed. In a Gala block where only the training system was changed, the central leader was cut out after harvest in 2012. This year, its first on the V-trellis, production was 53 bins per acre. "If it was still on the central leader, 53 bins would be considered a good yield," he said. Next year, he hopes to hit around 75 bins per acre, his target yield for Gala on the V-trellis. Target yields for Fuji and Pink Lady (Cripps Pink) are 80 bins per acre; Granny Smith is in the 75-bin range. • Through the years, his orchards have been stops for organized and individual grower groups, from the International Fruit Tree Association to Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission committee members. In describing his approach to horticulture, Colombini said he works with the tree, instead of against; manages soil and the surrounding environment to keep it healthy for the long term; focuses on the economics of staying profitable; and he strives to produce flavorful, high-quality fruit enjoyed by the consumer. His experimental cherry rootstock trial, reputed to be one of the more extensive and complete of rootstock trials planted on the West Coast, has been a popular visit for cherry researchers and growers. Washington cherry growers have brought several cherry horticultural gurus from Washington State University to meet with Colombini and learn about common cherry industry problems. Drs. Gregory Lang (now at Michigan State University), Matthew Whiting, and cherry breeder Nnadozie Oraguzie are past visitors. Colombini began his rootstock trial in 1999 and has around 20 rootstocks. When he planted it, the University of California was no longer doing cherry research, and the California Cherry Advisory Board didn't want to commit resources to long-term research, he explained. It became noteworthy because it contained more rootstocks and scion combinations in one location than any trial on the West Coast. Rootstocks include selections of Edabriz, Wieroot, Gisela, Krymsk, and several interstem rootstocks developed by Zaiger Genetics. Future Colombini and his partners will be deciding in the near future what to plant on 200 acres, a decision based on management and labor requirements of the crop and the outlook for long-term market success. He already knows that they probably won't plant apples because of the intensive management needed, and they planted 240 acres in the last two years that are still coming into production. But whatever the crop, he will strive to produce high-quality fruit in a manner mindful of the health of environment, while staying focused on the bottom line. And, he'll keep the orchard gates open for visitors. • GOOD FRUIT GROWER DECEMBER 2013 51

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