3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
BOYERTOWN, Pa. — Lee Spencer, 69, purchased Shanesville Fruit Farm from his parents in 1976. His parents had been farming the land since 1932 when they bought the property, which spans across sections of Earl and Pike townships in Berks County, Pa. Over time, Lee Spencer, who enjoys traveling, saw the benefits of a trellis system for their apple trees.
Spencer describes the trellis system as something he discovered while in Europe, where it has been used for at least 50 years. He said it has only been introduced to the East Coast of the U.S. in the past 10 or 15 years. He first implemented it in his orchards in 1996.
He originally witnessed its efficiency and production success at orchards in Holland. Tyrol, in northern Italy, is where Spencer said he’s seen the best trellis systems because the land is very expensive. The farmers in that region need to focus on making the most out their acreage since costs are so high.
Today, Spencer and his family grow 180 acres of fruit. The farm is home to 11 acres of pears, 15 acres of nectarines (which are fuzzless peaches by definition, he pointed out) and 60 acres of peaches. Just two acres are in cherries. The rest of the acreage is apples, and about 20 different varieties are a part of the farm product lineup.
“Honeycrisp apples are the new kid on the block,” Spencer said, noting that it’s been out for around 20 years but only gained popularity in the past decade. “People are excited about that variety.”
In his trellis systems, which he depicts as very labor-intensive in terms of startup and preparation, he is able to get a maximum of 1,600 apple trees on a single acre. But in most cases, he plants about 1,000 apple trees per acre.
“In my father’s day, you planted trees 40 feet in the row and 40 feet between the rows, and that gave you 27 trees to an acre,” he said. “So with a trellis system, you’re not depending a lot on one tree, where before if you lost one tree in that orchard, you lost four to five percent of the crop.”
Instead, he said, the trellis system is all about efficiency and working with nature for the best outcome.
“We plant the trees all in the north-south direction. When the sun comes up in the east, it shines on one side of the tree. When it turns past noon, it shines on the other side, so you get really high color and fruit quality since the sun is what gives the apples sugar,” he said. “In the center of big, older trees, it was always dark, and the sun never hit, so they’d stay green and not have as much flavor.”
These new trellised trees are trained to grow with less of a reach because their root systems are smaller, Spencer explained.
“The main thing about the trellis system is that the fruit quality and flavor are better,” Spencer said. “You have more trees and a higher production, and you can pick the apples in two years instead of six years because the tree is putting its energy into producing fruit, not wood.”
Earlier production is another prominent advantage Spencer has seen and appreciated with the trellis system approach.
“The downside is that the tree needs a strong support system because if you would remove the support system, the tree would just fall over since it has a very small root system,” Spencer said.
The rows of apples are 10 feet apart, with the prunings each winter gathered as brush and made into mulch, then applied directly at the soil under the same trees.
Spencer noted that the mulch works very well and especially helps with erosion problems on hillsides when water issues happen because of rain.
“The peaches we still plant in the conventional way,” he said. “The reason we don’t do peaches with the trellis system is there’s no dwarfing rootstock with them.”
During the busiest parts of the warm season, Shanesville Fruit Farm has about 30 employees. In the off-season, there are about 10.
Lee Spencer’s nephew, Dean Spencer, 50, is the field manager at the farm. Deans’ wife, Doreen, 42, is the pack house manager. Another nephew of Spencer’s, Dana, 48, is the farm’s labor manager.
About 80 percent of the farm’s fruit crops are sold commercially, while 20 percent are used for retail.
The main grocery store the farm supplies is Redner’s Warehouse Markets at its warehouse in Blandon, Berks County, Pa. It distributes to 50 regional storefronts, Spencer said.
The family’s roadside retail market bustles with cars and customers from July to December each year and is successful because of how hard Spencer has worked to ensure that everything is simple, and prices are reasonable for customers, he said.
A lot of his customers are multi-generational and tell him that their mothers bought peaches from his farm.
Customers also seem enthusiastic about the pick-your-own sweet and sour cherries each year, according to Spencer. Customers write down their phone numbers or email addresses to be notified when the cherries are ready.
“Word of mouth is so important,” Spencer said. “When you have a happy customer, they tell others.”