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New tool signals end of era

Photo by RaeLynn Ricarte

Clark Seavert, superintendent of the Mid-Columbia Agriculture Research and Extension Center, joins horticulturist Rita Giuliana in the task of training branches on cherry trees to better capture sunlight.

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

August 3, 2005

Hood River Valley growers could soon put away their ladders to harvest fruit — and cut labor costs by 33 percent or more. Clark Seavert, superintendent of the Mid-Columbia Agriculture Research and Extension Center, has convinced four growers to try out a new hydraulic picking platform. He predicts the 8-foot wide by 12-foot long piece of equipment will save costs by streamlining operations. To make platform use even more efficient, Oregon State University scientists are trying to reduce the canopy size of trees while maximizing fruit production.

Seavert said technological advances could become more vital to farming with a predicted drop in the available Hispanic work force. He said the number of Mexican nationals turning 15 (the allowable age for entry into labor) is expected to drop 50 percent by 2010. Plus, the costs associated with labor rising by an average of 3 percent each year, making it harder for many orchardists to pay the bills.

“We’ve got to do something to keep our farmers competitive in a global market. It’s time to open up our minds and forget our old ways of doing things,” he said. “We need to stop using the ‘we’re afraid to fail’ approach and start pushing the envelope.”

The orchard platform is available for testing by growers, and other interested community members, at the center from 2 to 5 p.m. on Thursday. The three-hour educational tour will also highlight ongoing efforts by staff to increase the quality of fruit for consumers and the profit margin for growers.

“We want to invite anyone who has an interest in the pear and cherry industry to come on out and visit us,” said Seavert.

He said people taking the afternoon tour can take a ride on the self-propelled machine. Between four to six passengers access fruit from the top branches of the tree while a ground crew picks the lower limbs. The cost of each unit runs between $15,000 to $25,000, an expense that Seavert believes will be lowered as more models are sold.

The platform does not work on steeply graded slopes — at least not yet — but Seavert anticipates that it could be used on about 70 percent of the ground owned by the county’s 350 growers. He said the one drawback of the platform is that workers still have some soreness in their shoulders and arms — a problem that is expected to be remedied in the future. In spite of that discomfort, Seavert said laborers claim more energy after a day of picking because they are no longer climbing up and down ladders with heavy loads of fruits.

“People are looking further down the road now and I think this industry is going to be changing so dramatically that we won’t recognize it if we don’t do something today,” he said.

Other mini-tours of the 56-acre property are planned from 5 to 7 p.m. as part of the annual Pre-Harvest Town and Country Social Gathering. That event takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. and features a barbecue in the rural setting (see inset below).

Town and Country barbecue returns

The long-standing tradition known as Town and Country barbecue continues Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Mid Columbia Agriculture Research and Experiment Station.

The barbecue is free to the community, and is the annual Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours gathering for August. In past years, the barbecue has been held at Willis Orchards, Rasmussen Farms, Kiyokawa Orchards, and other locations in Parkdale, Pine Grove, the Mid-Valley, and Hood River.

“The idea with Town and Country is to get the people who live in town who are not familiar, out to an agricultural setting, so they can be more familiar with it and see the benefit to the community,” said Jean Godfrey, executive director of the Hood River Grower-Shipper Association.

“If anyone wants to get his/her hands dirty and get right into what a research project looks like, we’ll be happy to show them,” said Seavert.

The 20 full-time employees at the center patiently await results on many experiments that can be years in the making. These trials, many of which extend over a decade, include pest management, mixed water and fertilizer application (ferti-gation), and optimizing mulch cover to reduce both weeds and evaporation.

“We’ve got to get at least a 20 percent return on investment to farmers to keep them growing. When we bring all of this research together then we can better accommodate the platform with a two-dimensional wall of smaller trees,” said Seavert.

Under the Competitive Orchard System for 2015 program, Seavert said the focus is to redirect the energy of a tree from growth into fruit production. The limited size of the trees would then allow them to be planted closer together. In fact, he anticipates that current densities of 250-300 trees per acre could more than triple in the future.

If these optimum conditions are achieved, Seavert expects the profit on a bin of fruit to spike by 50 percent under current market conditions. With the region’s population growing, and Measure 37 possibly reducing the available land base, he said each square inch of available earth needs to be utilized. Seavert contends that technological advances, such as the picking platform, will provide more opportunities for women to work in orchards. And laborers will also increase their skill levels by learning how to operate and maintain the new equipment.

“I think, ultimately, what is going to happen is that we’re going to have a better product for the consumer that is much more cost effective to grow,” Seavert said.

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