Sunday, July 7, 2013

Top 10 Reasons to NOT Grow Sweet Cherries in the Humid Northeast!

It's been a bit trying to grow sweet cherries this year given it has been one of the wettest Junes on record here in New England! I have always said sweet cherries like hot, dry, sunny weather. (Like in Washington.) Well, it's been hot enough but not nearly sunny or dry enough to grow sweet cherries successfully (IMHO) here in the humid Northeast. After struggling for several years with uncovered sweet cherry orchards at the UMass Cold Spring Orchard, I am about ready to give up. So, I came up with my Top 10 Reasons to NOT Grow Sweet Cherries in the Humid Northeast! (One reasonably successful sweet cherry grower here in Massachusetts came back quickly after I told him of my intention with the statement "Only 10???!!!" Ha Ha, I too could actually think of more, but I will stick with 10 for now.) Of course, anyone is welcome to refute by leaving a comment...

So here we go, my top 10 reasons for NOT growing sweet cherries here in the northeast...

Number 10.) Cherry trees love to die! Yes, I picked that up from a statement made by a NY colleague a while back, and I pretty much agree. In particular, if they don't like the site (wet feet) or just plain aren't happy, well they are toast. And it's often hard to put a finger on the cause, often I think it is canker. (More below on THAT reason.) Planting on raised berms has been reasonably effective in keeping the rootstock and tree happier and is recommended. Still, they need to go on your best, very well-drained sites. They still just might die.

Number 9.) Yes, we have dwarfing rootstocks, but they are not without problems. For one, Gisela 5 will runt out real quick and produce very small fruit if not grown on a good site (with irrigation) and pruned adequately and appropriately to promote new shoot growth. And choose your variety on Gisela 5 wisely -- self-fertile and heavy cropping Sweetheart on Gisela 5 is a bad choice. Regina, however, is a better choice. And Gisela 6/12 can produce rather hefty trees requiring significant pruning and requiring ladders to pick. (Although fruit size will benefit from the more vigorous tree.) I will have to admit in reality dwarfing Gisela cherry rootstocks make growing sweet cherries more tolerable and really don't belong on this list!

Number 8.) Cedar waxwings -- are largely a frugivore ( They migrate through the Northeast (to Canada, and their breeding grounds, God bless the Queen) in late spring (June) in moderate size flocks and according to Wikipedia "When the end of a twig holds a supply of berries that only one bird at a time can reach, members of a flock may line up along the twig and pass berries beak to beak down the line so that each bird gets a chance to eat." I have not directly observed this cedar waxwing behavior ( in my sweet cherries, however, I can verify this is what the end result will look like on early ripening sweet cherries not covered by bird netting. Please do watch one of my more creative and visually stunning YouTube videos about my stilted attempt to shoo the waxwing point to whoever can name song.) They are a beautiful migratory songbird BTW, Although their Conservation Status is listed as "Least Concern" that does not mean you can go out and shoot them as they are Federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 which carries a fine of up to $15,000 for misdemeanor conviction in violation of the Act. Believe me, it's not worth growing sweet cherries if you feel you need to shoot the Cedar Waxwings. Once the waxwings have moved on to their Canadian breeding ground (God bless the Queen), well then the other dicky birds, i.e., robins, starlings, etc. move in. Unless you grow many, many acres, and are willing to accept some depredation, bird netting is an absolute must to grow sweet cherries with any hint of profitability. 

Number 7.) Monilina sp. aka brown rot. Requires numerous fungicide sprays during bloom and when fruit ripen. Exacerbated by rain and humidity and bird pecks and splitting/cracking. Only one really good class of fungicides (the DMI's such as Indar) on brown rot, so repeated application(s) are bound to lead to resistance. (Monilinia already has demonstrated resistance to the DMI fungicides in some locations.) Yes, brown rot is manageable, but it's a pain in the butt in wet years requiring a lot of tractor-sprayer trips (like every few days) through the cherry orchard when fruit is ripening. Covered orchards are better, but not immune to brown rot on account of the increased humidity and longer drying time.

Number 6.) Did I mention when it rains, well, "Does a Bear Do His/her Business in the Woods? Subtitle: do Cherries Like to Crack and Split?" Heck yes. Rain covers are great at reducing splitting, however, they are expensive, require considerable maintenance, and unless care is taken to divert run-off away from the orchard root uptake on the margins can still lead to splitting. And did I mention how massively expensive and maintenance-intensive rain covers are? And if I was "lucky" enough to have acquired a rain cover for my cherries, it would be straight for the liquor cabinet the moment a severe thunderstorm warning is posted!

Number 5.) They have much better weather for growing sweet cherries in the PNW (Pacific NorthWest) anyways. I suspect Lynn Long will support me on this one. Greg Lang has to be shaking his head... :-)

Number 4.) Bacterial canker. With an emphasis on bacterial. Bacterial diseases of tree fruit are the least predictable, most fickle, largely endemic, most devastating, and often hardest to control. (Think fire blight of apples.) Sweet cherry are a willing host of Pseudomonas, which generally thrives in our alternately cool and wet spring and fall weather in the northeast, with plenty of wild hosts to sit and wait it out on. Look at this bacterial canker on Regina sweet cherry, planted three years ago on a site which, until now, had been mostly devoid of bacteria canker. Did it come in on the nursery? Has it built up on site? It has killed app. 20% of the trees. (Repeat after me, "cherry trees like to die, cherry trees like to die...") Not good. I think stressed trees (think water-logged roots), or previously infected trees (including nursery stock) are most susceptible. Be prepared to battle -- I don't use that term lightly -- bacterial canker on all fronts if you plan to grow sweet cherries in the northeast.  

Number 3.) Did I mention those Voen and Haygrove covers are ridiculously expensive and maintenance-intensive!

Number 2.) You can make more money growing apples in the same acreage and in less time. I will refer to the two best sources of information I have regarding economics of hi-density cherry vs. apple. They are Oregon State University and Cornell University. Regarding the hi-density cherry orchard, "This orchard will generate sufficient gross income to cover all cash costs in year 8 and all economic costs for the 25-year period in 16 years." ( For the tall-spindle apple orchard, and if I read Alison Demaree's cost of production spreadsheet correctly, I will phrase the same statement above with the apple numbers thrown in: "This apple orchard will generate sufficient gross income to cover all cash costs in year 4 and all economic costs for the 30-year period in 13 years." OK, case made. These are based on wholesale returns for cherries in the PNW (about $1 per pound) and Gala apples in NY (about $8 per bushel). Now of course selling fruit retail can make a huge difference, but I think the basic economic correlation holds, i.e., apples are always going to be more profitable (and potentially less risky) than cherries here. AND, there was no inclusion in the cherry economics for a Haygrove or Voen cover and bird netting. (The tall-spindle apple orchard is turn-key.) That would dramatically affect the comparison, thus I will go out on a limb and say "I could make a lot, lot more money growing Honeycrisp apples over 10 years on an orchard acre vs. trying to grow sweet cherries in the northeast."

And finally, the Number 1.) reason NOT to grow sweet cherries: Grow sweet-tart cherries! If you really want to grow cherries here, consider growing tart cherries. Please don't call them sour cherries. I don't even like tart cherries from a marketing perspective. Where's a marketer when you need one? We  should be calling them sweet-tart cherries! (Or, tart-sweet cherries?) I mean the likes of Balaton, Erdi Jubileum, and (maybe) Danube. Much easier to grow. Great on Gisela 6 rootstock. Arguably better health benefits than sweet cherries. Makes a great pie. Can be picked stemless. Can be eaten fresh or baked or processed into juice, sauce (great on vanilla ice cream), etc. Customers really seem to like them. Birds don't like them (much). Can't buy them in the grocery store for cheap after July 1 (like you usually can with PNW sweet cherries). Heck, can't buy them period in the grocery store. Far less of a headache. (Although I am not convinced Danube is well-adapted here in the northeast.) Don't need to be covered or netted! Every farm market/roadside stand/retail grower should be growing some sweet-tart cherries on Gisela rootstocks!