The science of growing apples

Trevor Nichols
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Fruit growers get to see latest technology during tour

Farmer Andy Sterling checks out Pete Luckett's vineyards Aug. 2 at the start of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers Association Orchard Tour.

Imagine biting into a fresh apple. The crisp crunch as your teeth break the skin; the subtle, earthy smell; the sweet splash of cold juice on your tongue.

It likely makes you think of orchards stretching into the distance: the rich soil the fruit sprung out of, and the hot summer sun that allowed it to grow.

The truth, however, is that you have far more to thank than sun and soil for the apples you eat. Scientists have been working for decades in the Annapolis Valley to perfect the way fruit is grown and harvested. You are just as likely to see a bespectacled scientist in an orchard as you are a farmer.

In early August, the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers' Association (NSFGA) held their annual orchard tour. On a stormy Tuesday, a hoard of people from the agriculture industry clambered into two big tour busses and rumbled around to several Valley farms to see the latest fruit-growing techniques and technology that helps Valley farmers stay on the cutting edge.

At Sarsfield Farms, the group stood scattered around, in the shadow of a 20-foot-high wall of apple crates. NSFGA representatives handed out sheets of complex charts showing, what appeared to the untrained eye, an unintelligible spread of numbers and acronyms.

Most of the farmers in the crowd looked at it with mild interest, but appeared to understand what the jumble of numbers represented.

Doug Nichols, the research director at the NSFGA, strolled to the front of the group, and began rattling off a technical presentation about the use of various combinations of "thinners" in orchards.

Former farmer Bob Eaton, on the tour to keep informed, explained in simpler terms what Nichols was talking about.

Thinners are chemicals farmers use to control how much fruit their trees produce, he explained. If too many apples grow on one tree, the fruit doesn't grow big enough, and can't be sold as easily around the world.

It's a complex process, involving mixing different chemicals together in various amounts, applying the thinners at the right time, in the right manor, and a host of other things an average apple-eater would likely never dream of.

Researchers with the NSFGA and the research station have been experimenting with all kinds of different variables for years. They have quantified the science of thinning into the charts and graphs Nichols talked about at Sterling Farms, and work every year to refine the process further.

That refining process is technical. Researchers have special instruments designed to measure the amount of nutrients in the apples, and have quantified the amount of fruit on every branch that leads to the ideal size and amount of fruit. One high tech instrument, shown by Peter Harrison at Sterling Farms, allows researchers to tell farmers the perfect time to harvest their crops - down to the exact calender day.

All of this research is so important, Nichols explains after his talk, because in order for Annapolis Valley fruit growers to compete in a tough global market, they need every advantage they can get. There are all kinds of things, however, fruit growers need to take into account for their crops to be successful.

They need to make sure they don't have too much fruit on their trees; that they aren't harvesting it too soon or that they aren't leaving it on the trees for too long. They need to monitor how active pollinators like bees are, what the temperature is, the amount of nitrogen in their soil and dozens of other things.

"Growers can struggle with making these kinds of decisions," he admitted.

"There's so much that can go wrong, it's not just as simple as planting trees," added Bill Craig, who works with Agri-Point.

He explained that in order for a fruit grower to make money in today's agriculture industry they need to be smart. That means, he said, using the literature and research that is out there, and keeping in contact with researches from organizations like the NSFGA and Agri-Point.

"A lot of these guys now have university degrees," he said, referring to fruit growers.

But while a university degree can help a farmer produce better fruit, it's not a requirement. Most of the farmers on the orchard tour admitted that the research is helpful, but said there's something else to being a farmer that goes beyond pure analytical knowledge.

It seemed hard for many of them to describe, but many talked about things like a connection to the land, "just knowing" how certain things will affect their crops, and a genuine love for farming, despite its hardships. The things, essentially, that make farming more than just a numbers game.

"You've just got to love it," said Jonathan Newell, one of the young farmers on the tour.

Organizations: NSFGA, Nova Scotia Fruit Growers, Sterling Farms

Geographic location: Annapolis Valley, Agri-Point

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