Twilight Fruit Meeting Highlights Fire Blight and Other Issues

6/21/2014 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

SMITHSBURG, Md. — “This year we had the perfect storm for fire blight,” said Kari Peter, assistant professor of tree fruit pathology at Penn State, at a recent twilight fruit growers meeting.

“Conditions were absolutely perfect this year for fire blight. We had a 10-day stretch of bloom and we had two extensive two-to-three-day infectious periods with rain, so the bacteria had time to proliferate while the rain allowed the bacteria to move around. Then we had hail,” Peter said, adding that if growers hadn’t kept up with their spraying, the infection period for scab may be a problem, too.

Peter was among several Extension specialists speaking to a crowd of more than 60 growers at the farm of Mary and Matt Harsh, who volunteered to host the meeting at their Chesley Vegetable Farms.

“The interaction between the farms and farmers is more valuable than the meeting as far as I’m concerned,” Matt Harsh said. He farms 15 acres of tree fruit and strawberries, and 40 acres of produce.

Matt Harsh has tried a variety of planting techniques. He uses 10-foot heavy wooden posts spaced 10 feet apart and uses electric fence wire to tie up his tomatoes.

“I use a hedge trimmer to lop off the indeterminate tomatoes when they grow taller than the post,” Matt Harsh said. “Heritage tomatoes are our biggest sellers.”

He’s gotten good results from using concrete blocks to shape his peach trees.

“I’m not going to say that this is the best way to grow a peach tree, but it is one way to grow a peach tree,” he said. “We don’t have it 100 percent figured out, but this is working to make an open tree. It is a lot of work to put these blocks in place and the big blocks are expensive, so we use two small ones.”

The tour of Chesley Vegetable Farms rolled through the area where the Harshes have peach trees planted.

Peter pointed out a problem emanating from the fact that their peach trees are planted closely to plum trees.

“There is black knot on some of these trees,” Peter said. “Black knot affects plums and cherries and doesn’t usually affect other trees, but here it is on these peach trees. It is a fungus that will look like a tumor on the stem and it may actually girdle the stem. In August, when the fungus stops growing, you want to cut it out. Management is your best option; bury it, burn it.”

The tristate tree fruit meetings are put on jointly by the Maryland Horticultural Society, Penn State, the University of Maryland and West Virginia University as part of The Mid-Atlantic Fruit Consortium.

“We have had these meetings every two weeks throughout the spring to give the growers timely information on disease management, insect management and cultural practices in tree fruit, small fruit and vegetables,” said Joseph A. Fiola, a specialist in viticulture and small fruit at the University of Maryland.

Most meetings, Fiola said, are held on commercial farms as well as a meeting held at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, Pa.

“The information you can gain in a short time and the interaction you get from other farmers with similar problems is priceless,” Fiola said. “The specialists from all three states participate and there is so much information from the other farmers” that you can’t be that busy not to participate, he said.

“For many people, the only time I reach them is face to face at these meetings,” Peter said. “I enjoy the twilight meetings to get to know folks and getting the word out. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, learn new things and talk to the specialists. The master gardeners are the soldiers for the homeowner and we are the soldiers for the commercial growers.”

Diversity has worked for meeting hosts Matt and Mary Harsh.

“We plant 165,000, or about six acres of onions,” Matt Harsh said. “Last year we tried 175,000, but that is just too many onions for one farm. We grow candy onions for sweetness and we plant red wing for red onions. We also plant cippolini onions as we get such a good price for them, but they tend to rot due to a flat ridge on them. Rot is the boogeyman of onions. We put a lot of copper on all of our vegetables and that helps.”

Matt Harsh said this year’s cold, late spring has pushed everything back a bit.

“We have had a few years of early seasons and that gets people used to the early produce. Basically you have two extra weeks of produce in those years and you don’t have that this year,” he said. “You don’t have the product and you don’t get that back at the end of the year.”

The Harshes sell direct to the public at farmers markets in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, and they also sell to Wegmans.

“Our markets in D.C. are starting to get a little more saturation. Five years ago, the farmers market thing was wide open and now it is starting to be more competitive and starting to narrow our margins a little.

“This might look like its easy compared to dairy farming, but it’s not,” he added. “We get about 75 percent of our income in August and September in an eight-week period and you have to be a good manager to get the stuff out the door at that time.”

Chad Andrew, who farms 110 acres of cherries, plums, apricots and peaches in St. Thomas, Pa., said he likes coming to the twilight meetings to see what other growers are doing.

“Last year, we had bacterial spot real bad,” Andrew said. “It is nice to see different ways of doing things and I don’t have to do them. These meetings are always educational and you might learn something to make you more efficient.”

Same goes for Christopher Black of Catoctin Mountain Orchard, who attended the meeting at the Harsh farm.

“Everybody grows everything differently and there are a thousand ways to do what you do,” Black said. “They train the limbs with concrete blocks and it works. I try to attend as many of these as I can to get as much new information as we can get from our plant pathologist and to see what everyone does.”

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