Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2012 11:00 AM
Dan Wheat/Capital Press
Alberto Rodriguez strips all but the king blossom, that's already bloomed, from each cluster on Gala apple trees at an Auvil Fruit Co. orchard north of Orondo, Wash., May 1. Auvil hand blossom thins a lot of apples for optimum quality.
Chemical process cheaper but less effective, hurts crop
By DAN WHEAT
ORONDO, Wash. -- Little boys often are told not to pick the flowers. But big boys at Auvil Fruit Co. are paid to destroy as many blossoms as they can.
The fun can wear off, however, when faced with seemingly endless acres of apple trees in full bloom.
It's tedious work. Pinching off all but the king blossom in a cluster to reduce crop load, increase fruit size and save enough spurs to bloom next year. If all the spurs produce fruit in a given year, they're apt to yield only leaves the next.
Most orchards rely on chemical thinning because it's cheaper and there aren't enough workers for everyone to hand thin. But Auvil Fruit Co. in Orondo does a lot of hand blossom thinning because it's more effective and it's aiming for top quality fruit. Hand thinning is worth it to Auvil even though it can cost up to $2,000 an acre compared with roughly $420 to $550 an acre for chemical and green fruit thinning.
The company pays 350 employees an average of about $10 per hour to hand thin 200 acres of apples and 10 acres of cherries over three weeks, said Brett Drescher, Auvil orchard manager.
This year it's particularly important because of heavy bloom.
With no natural thinning from frost so far, Central Washington has had a huge cherry and pear bloom and is in the middle of a "pretty immense" apple bloom across all varieties, said Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative.
Growers are stepping up their chemical thinning of apples because if they don't the crop will be too huge and not enough spurs will be saved to produce next year, Schell said.
"Wind has been a problem (for spraying) in afternoons, but most growers are staying ahead of it. It's a huge, huge bloom. It looks real pretty but it's a little nerve-wracking," he said.
"It's a matter of taking it off in stages," he said.
In the past growers chemical thinned once or twice a season, mainly to enhance the following year's bloom. Now they spray chemical thinners at bloom, pedal fall and early fruitlet stage.
"Hopefully through that stairstep process you chip away at it (reducing crop load) and assure bloom the following year," Schell said. "You do it heavier and in multiple stages to have little hand thinning because labor is so sketchy."
Auvil Fruit hand thins a lot of Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp and Aurora but chemical thins older Gala and Granny Smith because it's not cost-effective to hand thin.
"Hand thinning isn't for everyone," Drescher said.
Growers have to have excellent frost control systems including wind machines, water and alarm systems because a frost can wipe out a crop if it kills all the king blooms and the rest of the blossoms have been thinned away, he said. It takes total control of growing, harvest, packing, storage and marketing -- as Auvil does -- to make it affordable, he said.
Thinning has been a push this year, Drescher said, because several days of 80-degree weather accelerated bloom and narrowed the time frame.
This spring is shaping up as close to ideal, Schell said.
"We're right on par with the 30-year average on blossom degree days for apples. Full bloom is right on target," he said.
The gradual warming makes for good cell division for fruit size, he said.
After two cool, wet, late springs in a row, it's nice to have a normal one?
"Yes, I'll take this," Schell said.