Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association

FRUIT GROWING IN MINNESOTA- FIRST IMPRESSIONS

December 9, 1999

 

-by Bob Purvis (12/27/99)

 

During the period March 1992-October 1999 my wife and I lived in Selah, WA, where I had about 245 fruit trees. At the end of October, we moved from our home there to the outskirts of St. Paul, MN, where I began work as an agricultural statistician with the Minnesota office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA. So, my life has come full circle in 11 years—I am once again working for the Federal government in a cold climate.

In the four weeks since our arrival here, I visited two commercial apple growers in Cottage Grove, MN, where we bought a house. On November 24 I spent four hours with David Bedford, an apple breeder at the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center near Excelsior. In this article, I’ll relate some of the things I learned which might be of interest to members of the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers.

The Minnesota fruit industry is small compared to Washington State’s, producing only about 12 million boxes of fruit per year versus about 80- 1-00 million. There are about 150 apple growers in the State, versus about 3000 in Washington. The majority of them are around Minneapolis- St. Paul because it is the population center of the State, but the largest orchards are in the southeast part of the state. There is one growers’ organization here: the Minnesota Apple Growers’ Association, which meets monthly and had its annual meeting; scheduled for Jan. 4-6, 2000.

Mr. Bedford estimates the average yield of a Minnesota orchard is around 500 bushels (= boxes) per acre, translating to about 20 bins/acre of apples before they are packed. (By comparison, in central Washington a mature orchard should be able to produce at least 40 bins/acre if it is properly managed, and on some varieties such as Golden Delicious yields can sometimes exceed 100 bins/acre.) Planting density statewide in 1993 averaged 123 apple trees/acre.

Apple growers in Minnesota are able to survive and earn a living by virtue of selling their apples directly to the public via on-farm roadside stands, by adding value to the product by processing it, and by offering other attractions to lure people to the orchard. Furthermore, they sell about 90% of what they grow within the state, so unlike growers in Washington they are not affected by the vagaries of the export market. On top of that, they grow what they know the typical Minnesotan likes to consume. According to Bedford, about two-thirds of the varieties grown commercially in Minnesota were developed in-state, of which Haralson is by far the most widely grown. Production of Honeycrisp is rising rapidly, however, not just because it tastes great, stores well, is a grower-friendly tree, and can survive -50°F cold, but because it sometimes brings returns of $50/box, eight times what McIntosh might bring at present. In 1993, Connell Red, Regent, and McIntosh ranked #2, 3, and 4 in production after Haralson.

A large wholesale nursery near St. Paul, the primary source of fruit trees sold at retail outlets in Alaska in the 1980s, supplies about 99% of the fruit trees sold retail to homeowners in MN and the North Central states. This nursery has a number of fields in Woodbury, the easterly St. Paul suburb just north of Cottage Grove, but requires a $1000 or larger order to buy from it. It was selling both Zestar apple and Bali tart cherry in their 1999 catalog. It is worth notings however, that only 2% of their nursery-stock sales are of fruit trees.

In my visit with a grower who has an 18-acre orchard near Cottage Grove, I found a lot of Haralson trees, but in 1999 many of the apples were left on the trees because of severe russeting. By mid-November, Honeycrisp was sold out not only at his orchard, but evidently everywhere in the State. (Thank goodness, I was able to bring a box of Honeycrisp picked from my trees when we moved.) He spoke approvingly of the flavor of the first fruits he had harvested from his young trees of Zestar and Pinova. Zestar ripens just after Beacon and was introduced by the U of MN about 2 years ago. Trees of Zestar (formerly known as Zesta!) were available from a wholesale nursery in Ephrata, WA in the spring of 1999 as well as from a large greenhouse and garden center a few miles from our apartment in Inver Grove Heights. Pinova, developed in Germany, ripens at about the same time as Golden Delicious and would probably be difficult to ripen in Anchorage although its winter-hardiness is excellent, and it is available from some of the major nurseries in Wenatchee, WA.

The Cottage Grove orchardist reported that in February, 1996 there had been a freak occurrence of -50°F at his orchard, (Most winters they see -25°F at least once.) Honeycrisp on M.26 suffered winter-injury at those temperatures, but those trees have recovered well and are of a large size (10-12 feet tall and spreading). Mr, Bedford commented that apple and pear trees suffer more injury in extreme cold in the heartwood of the tree than to the twigs, flower buds, and leaf buds. By contrast, stone fruits suffer injury to the flower and leaf buds and twigs more commonly at cold temperatures than to the heartwood.

The Minnesota Extension Service recommends that apple growers harvest their fruit by October 20, and he was able to ripen Cameo by that date in 1999. Keepsake is the latest-ripening apple in most commercial orchards here, however. Gala is satisfactorily winter-hardy in Zone 4, but at Excelsior Braeburn and Fuji are too winter- tender and too late to ripen. The Excelsior site experiences -25°F almost every winter.

With reference to cold storage facilities, there are very few orchards that have cold storage for anything later than the fall. So, where to store the apples I brought from my home orchard is a major issue.

In Alaska, choice of rootstock is a life-or-death matter for apple trees. Here in Minnesota, the Zone 3 or 4 climate notwithstanding, winter- injury to rootstocks is extremely rare because snow cover is reliable. The Cottage Grove orchardist found M.7 and M.26 to be reliable stocks, and Bedford mentioned that even MM. 106, which goes dormant slowly in the fall, survives okay for the very few growers who use it or MM.111. He is now using Bud.9 extensively as a rootstock to which to bud chips from the seedling trees in his breeding program.

The number-one pest on apples here is apple maggot. Codling moth, the scourge of apples in and climates, is a distant second, and there are occasional problems with leaf miners or aphids. Bedford believes that the cold climate here tends to keep pests and disease in check to some degree. Because of the very swift transition from winter to summer, spring frost damage to apple blossoms is almost unheard of.

The major limiting factor for growing pear trees in MN is winter-injury; fire blight is a secondary problem. Among the pear varieties which do reasonably well here are Parker, Patten, Luscious, Gourmet, Summercrisp, and Ure. Bedford has made a number of crosses of European with Asian pears, to gain better precocity in bearing as well as a more crunchy texture, and he believes that in the spring of 2000 some of the trees will have their first fruits. I sent five trees of Beurre Giffard to him in October, which he will be testing for cold hardiness. Concorde pear has not been tried at Excelsior, but Harrow Delight proved to be marginal in its winter-hardiness there. Pear psylla are almost unknown here; he said that it would be quite possible to grow pears organically here.

From my studying a guide to roadside markets in MN, it seems there is virtually no commercial plum production in MN. Mount Royal is the most reliable of the European plums and crops well 3 years in 5, in Bedford’s experience. He is looking forward to testing the Opal plum, which a retail nursery in Princeton, MN has offered in recent years. The primary insect pest of plums here is plum curcuho, but it is rarely a problem. Black knot is the most common disease of plums and cherries here, but it is only a minor problem that can be controlled by pruning out infections. The Schubert chokecherry is the most common host of this disease, and Mr. Bedford is looking forward to testing the Bali cherry.

With reference to apricots, Moongold and Sungold have crops at Excelsior about 3 years in 5. They are only fair for fresh eating but make excellent preserves. The major issue with apricots here is flower-bud survival of midwinter cold. Less common is injury in early spring when the buds begin to swell, and rarely, injury when the trees are in bloom. Although Goldcot has fruited in Anchorage, it is not reliably winter-hardy at Excelsior. I am eager, as is Bedford, to see how M.604, Debbie’s Gold, Westcot, and Brookcot will do in this climate. I should note in passing that these four varieties all had an excellent bloom for me in April, 1999, but Brookcot was at least 3-5 days later in coming to full bloom than the other three. (Based on the few apricots I had from my tree in Selah, I rate the quality of Brookcot as comparable with the other three. The disparity in bloom date under the cool, cloudy conditions of 1999 suggests that Brookcot may be worthy of further attention by northern growers.)

A final word: the University of Minnesota has a very active strawberry program, headed by Dr. Jim Luby, in which most of the breeders on staff are involved. Strawberries are being tested not only at Excelsior, but also at Grand Rapids (a Zone 3 climate) and at Morris. Dr. Luby also leads the blueberry breeding program, which is active at both Grand Rapids and at Becker, where the soils are sandier and more acidic than they are at Excelsior.

The home we bought has 0.5 acre of land with it and space to plant perhaps a few dozen trees at most. It is somewhat sheltered from the wind and has good sun exposure, but I do not know what the soils are like. We moved in December 1, and as of now our address is 7300 Iden Avenue South; Cottage Grove, MN 55016, phone (651)-769-8473. I welcome comments on this article, especially about the cultivars I mentioned, or correspondence from other members of the AFPG or NAFEX and can be reached by e-mail at my office, at rpurvis@nass.usda.gov, or by telephone at 1- 651-296-3173, my working hours being 7:45 to 4:30 M-F.