From Photos.PennLive.com, The Patriot-News, “State research money could mean success or failure for local orchards” by Jeff Frantz and Christine Baker, 3 Apr 2011.
‘We’ll begin to fail’ if Penn State research is cut, farmer says
BUTLER TWP., Pa. — The apple trees covering most of Hollabaugh Brothers orchard are small, spindly things, newly budded sticks rising from the still-softening earth.
A generation ago, they would have been majestic — 30 feet tall, 20 feet wide — each dominating its piece of ground.
Farm worker Manuel Galan prunes a peach tree at Hollabaugh Bros., Inc. Fruit Farms & Market in Biglerville. Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal would slash funding to Penn State’s agricultural research and extension programs by a third. If that happens, Penn State says it would have to cut programs and jobs. Producers like the Hollabaugh’s say what they’ve learned from the research has allowed them to grow more food for less money. For many, that has been the difference between harvesting and going broke. CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News
But those trees produced less. Fewer apples each year, fewer apples over the life of the tree, fewer trees per field. The apples were smaller, and they were of lower quality.
Back then, big trees did well enough for Hollabaugh and the other orchards that play a major role in Adams County’s economy. Now, they just look pretty.
Bring in a small harvest for a year, you don’t make any money. Bring in a small harvest for several years, you lose the farm.
The apple tree did not shrink by accident.
Researchers studied how the trees grow and what makes them most productive. They shared what they learned with growers. The growers changed the way they planted, pruned, nourished and picked.
Penn State University researchers did a great deal of that work, and the university became a world leader, in orchards and across the agricultural spectrum. Penn State’s cooperative-extension offices in each county pass the knowledge along to farmers.
That system helped the price of an apple stay low even as demand rose. Growers learned to use fewer pesticides. Extension agents coached farmers to reduce farm runoff, benefiting local water supplies and the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists defeated plum pox, a virus that ravaged the midstate’s orchards. They’re looking to squash the stinkbug outbreak that could cost the state’s farmers tens of millions dollars this year.
The future funding for a great deal of that research is in doubt.
Gov. Tom Corbett drew protests for proposing a budget that would cut Penn State’s allocation in half. Less noticed was the impact those cuts could have on agricultural research and the extensions. State money pays for about a third of that work, which is not backed by any undergraduate tuition.
If the cuts go through, Penn State has said it will have to lay off more than 400 people in the department and would likely have to close some extension offices. The university says it would be less competitive for research grants, so the impact would multiply.
For a state where one in seven people work in agriculture, farmers said the proposal clashes with the pro-business message Corbett preached during his budget address.
In response, the administration noted the state is facing a $4.2 billion deficit and Penn State cannot get everything it wants. It wants the university to use its allocation to pay for the research and cut costs elsewhere.
Penn State has given no indication it would do so.
This isn’t like other areas of education funding. Farms will not close if Penn State’s research is slashed. Farmers will still plant and harvest their fields this year. You will still be able buy an apple from an Adams County orchard. The milk you drink will still come from a cow living in a midstate barn, and that cow will have eaten midstate grain.
But a cycle could be set in motion.
“It’s going to impact what we do,” Brad Hollabaugh said. “And we’ll begin to fail.”
And those costs could come back to your dinner table.
To understand how research has changed farming, Hollabaugh walked us through the orchard his family has worked since 1955.
The differences he described seem simple — the pruning of a peach tree, the fight against stinkbugs and other pests, planting apple orchards that look more like vineyards — but they are backed up by science and produce results. Hollabaugh invests $10,000 to $15,000 to plant a single acre, and he needs that acre to be fruitful for as long as possible.
He can’t afford to guess.
“The difference for us is being able to succeed versus fail,” he said. “I’m a farmer. I was born on this farm and I’ve worked here all my life and it’s what I want to do. But … I can’t just keep doing things and not making any money from it.”
Shaping a peach tree
It’s mid-morning in mid-March, and a crew of Hollabaugh’s men moves through a peach orchard beneath a low blue sky.
They clip off any branch that points down or the side limbs that have lost the rhubarb luster of freshness. The trees do not reach far above Hollabaugh’s head.
As with apple trees, growers used to raise peach trees much larger, until research proved that extra growth counterproductive.
It helps to think of a tree as a natural factory that manufactures a juicy product. The factory gets its energy from the soil, water and sun. It can use that energy to grow fruit or wood. Only one is profitable for the orchard owner.
Researchers found that older limbs don’t produce as many peaches as new limbs, so some of them have to go. They also found downward-pointing branches don’t produce the same quality of fruit, so they go, too.
Post pruning, the more efficient factory has no choice but to use its energy growing more peaches, and those peaches taste better.
Through generations of grafting and cross-pollination, researchers have engineered the trees to grow smaller.
Those shorter trees mature sooner and start producing peaches after three years instead of five. The sooner Hollabaugh can pick peaches, the sooner he can pay off his investment on the field — hopefully before it’s damaged by disease or severe weather.
Stinkbugs and other pests
Every few trees, a red rubber loop hangs from a limb.
These loops are loaded with pheromones. Male bugs smell these pheromones and get too confused to find the real females. Fewer pests are born and fewer trees get harmed.
The system at Hollabaugh’s farm was developed in part by Penn State research. It costs a bit more up front, but what they save on chemical insecticides more than makes up for it. Putting fewer chemicals on the trees means fewer chemicals in the air or in the ground. Growers such as Hollabaugh are hoping Penn State’s researchers can now find a similar breakthrough against the stinkbugs that have invaded their fields. By last fall, Hollabaugh found stinkbugs on 10 percent to 15 percent of some varieties of apple trees.
When stinkbugs bite the fruit, they inject an enzyme that breaks down the fruit’s cell walls. Peaches develop soft spots. Apples grow around the bite, but it creates a dead spot inside that makes them useless for processors. With so much fruit on the market, it’s hard to sell a healthy apple with even minor defects.
Since the stinkbugs were brought to this country from Asia, they have no natural predators in Adams County orchards. Rough estimates suggest they cost millions of dollars statewide last year and they are predicted to do more damage this year.
Penn State is leading the research attack against it, but funding cuts could hurt those efforts. Any delay will only cost Hollabaugh and his neighbors.
Penn State’s researchers have had success before.
They beat back plum pox, a virus that attacked midstate orchards beginning in the late 1990s. For nearly a decade, orchard owners feared the virus would wipe out the area’s peach industry. But by aggressively tearing out trees, researches defeated the disease. It was the first time anyone had documented the eradication of an invasive virus after it took hold in an area.
Growers need a similar victory now, and researchers said that will take time and money.
The future tree
If smaller trees are the present, could the future orchard look more like a vineyard?
That’s what a glance through Hollabaugh’s test field would suggest.
Four metal cables are strung between wooden poles, and the trees are tied to the wires. It’s an extreme version of the approach taken with the peach trees a few fields over. The trunk is the only permanent wood. The other limbs will serve their purpose as a wood producer for a year or two, then be clipped away.
He manages the field of Cameo and Honeycrisp trees with Penn State researchers and a grant helps pay for it.
So far, he said, the results have been amazing.
In their third year, the Cameo trees produced 500 bushels per acre. A traditional Cameo field, by contrast, would produce 75 to 100 bushels per acre in the third year. The Honeycrisps — popular with shoppers but bothersome for growers — are coming in just behind the Cameos in the test field.
This could be the next leap forward for orchards, Hollabaugh said. But they never would have tried it without the research.
“If research goes away, we’re on our own,” Hollabaugh said. “We as growers can’t afford to do the type of research they do on everything from the soil on up to the management systems we use.”
If researchers get laid off and extension offices close, Hollabaugh said, farmers will be fine for a year or two. They have benefited from recent breakthroughs, and it would probably keep Pennsylvania farms competitive.
But once the state falls behind, he worries it will take a long time to catch up. And with apples coming from New Zealand and tomatoes from South America, not to mention food getting shipped from all over the country, not evolving is the first step toward bankruptcy.
“This is the tree system that may be best for us, or optimal, this decade,” Hollabaugh said.
“When my grandson is here on this farm — and I hope he is one day — there may be different root stocks, different cultivars, different equipment. This system might be very antiquated, like the old seedling orchards that used to be prominent.”
View photo gallery and video and read more at: Photos.PennLive.com, The Patriot-News, “‘We’ll begin to fail’ if Penn State research is cut, farmer says” by Jeff Frantz and Christine Baker, 3 Apr 2011.