Orchard Owner Delving Into Mechanical Thinning

5/11/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

LANCASTER, Pa. — Cherry Hill Orchards has seen its share of changes over the years.

What started as a small orchard now includes a well-known pick-your-own operation and retail outlet with everything from cut flowers to baked goods and, of course, fruit.

But one change may prove to be even more significant, even though most people will never see it.

At a fruit growers meeting Tuesday evening, Tom Haas, owner of the business, talked about purchasing a $15,000 mechanical fruit thinner for his peaches.

Mechanical fruit thinners have been around since 2007, when researchers at Penn State traveled to Europe and brought the technology back to the area.

Katy Clowney, who is now the farmers market manager at Kuhn Orchards in Cashtown, Pa., but was instrumental in bringing the thinner technology to Pennsylvania, said growers started purchasing the thinners in 2009 after two years of testing at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, Pa., and at neighboring orchards.

Clowney said the first thinners were designed more for apples than peaches, but more recent models can handle both.

Haas said he’s known about the fruit thinners for a few years, but it wasn’t until he attended a talk at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in February that he started getting interested in one for his orchard.

He purchased a thinner in April and thinned 40 acres of peach trees in about three days.

“We got it one day and put it to work the next,” he said.

He hopes the thinner will result save on labor and allow him to move his employees to other areas of the farm where they might be needed more.

He also hopes to get better fruit size and quality.

Haas said he’s happy with the thinner, although some trees, he said, may not handle it as well as others.

Too much thinning or not doing it at the right time can result in the loss of leaves or even some branches, he said.

Rob Crassweller, professor of tree fruit at Penn State, said the optimal time for mechanical thinning is during bloom, but that can be tricky since it could render a tree more susceptible to frost.

Crassweller said studies have shown that thinning consistently results in a larger fruit set and better economic returns for growers.

Haas said he didn’t use the thinner on his apples, and some hand thinning also will need to be done on his peaches.

“But I feel pretty good we done a decent job,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting drew nearly 100 growers from the area to the orchard and market, which is just south of Lancaster city.

Cherry Hill Orchards was started in 1970 and has grown to include not only more acreage, but also a full-fledged outlet store and pick-your-own operation.

The Haas family grows 165 acres of fruit.

Kari Peter, assistant professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, said there are a number of diseases that growers are facing this time of year.

Bacterial spot is a big problem in stone fruits, such as peaches and cherries. Fire blight, she said, will start coming when the weather gets warmer, as will brown rot.

When it comes to apples, Peter said there have been prime breeding conditions for fire blight. She said the bacteria can be controlled with copper just before bloom and with the antibiotic streptomycin just after bloom.

Powdery mildew, another potential problem for apples, should be controlled with a fungicide just before spores generate. It thrives at temperatures above 55 degrees with high humidity, so the time to control it is right now.

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