East Lansing MSU researcher works on orchard system of future $2.5 million grant will fund team of scientists from other states

By Rosemary Parker

Kalamazoo Gazette

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- It's a fruit grower's dream.

An automated delivery system would squirt precisely enough fertilizer, fungicide or bug killer directly onto each tree, each delivered by the push of a button inside an office.

There would be no need to wait for the ground to dry after a rain to apply disease-prevention measures; no worry about the possibility of chemical spray drifting on windy days.

Not a drop of expensive farm chemicals or equipment fuel would be wasted.

A Michigan State University researcher has been awarded a $2.5 million grant to work with a team of scientists from other states to make that dream a reality.

If successful, the system would cut production costs, reduce environmental impact and allow even massive commercial operations to peacefully coexist with suburban neighbors, said Matthew Grieshop, an assistant professor of entomology at Michigan State University who will lead the project.

"The potential impacts are huge and wide ranging, from economics to the environmental and social impacts," Grieshop said. "It's a real game changer."

Grieshop's specialty is organic pest management. And his charge in this project is to design a "resource-efficient and ecologically sustainable" production system that will work in high-density commercial apple and cherry orchards.

The orchards of the future are already here for apples, Grieshop said. That growing system involves a "fruiting wall of apples grown in a narrow strip right down the orchard, similar to a vineyard."

Gone are the sprawling trees of Johnny Appleseed's era that lived for generations and required a ladder to reach top branches.

Going, too, are the semi-dwarf trees of a generation ago, except perhaps in the U-pick and farm tour orchards.

Most of today's commercial apple trees are spindly spikes. They are just an inch or two in trunk diameter, with a few flimsy branches that must be tied to trellises to support the heavy fruit they bear. Packing up to 2,000 trees onto each acre where 25 trees once stood, the wispy trees are growing far more apples on far fewer acres "because growers have realized we are not in the business of growing trees and wood. We are in the business of producing apples," said Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

But the technology of applying fertilizer, water, pesticides and other treatments has not kept pace with the science of the modern trees, Grieshop said.

In today's high-density commercial orchards, there's no room to maneuver a big tractor hauling tanks down the narrow rows. There's also no longer a need for the high-powered sprays, once required to envelop big tree canopies with clouds of spray to assure the spray reached the inner branches.

The equipment of the past is noisy and expensive to operate and not suited to speedy delivery of disease treatments within minutes of a rain storm, Donohue said. Moisture on the surface of a leaf promotes the opening of the leaf's pores, a perfect entryway for disease organisms, she said. But on rainy days, the ground may be too soft to allow heavy equipment to move into the orchard to apply disease controls quickly enough after a rain.

Timing of treatments becomes more critical this year as conventional growers are losing many of the most powerful pesticides currently on the market. The chemicals are being regulated out of use because of the environmental risks they may pose. The products replacing those being phased out are more expensive and may require more frequent, and timely, applications, Grieshop said.

Speedy application of disease-fighting sprays is even more important in organic orchards where even milder, less effective natural controls must be applied more frequently to achieve the same level of disease control.

"A matter of a few hours (in application time) can be the difference between making a crop or not," Grieshop said.

The system Grieshop envisions would use micro-emitters, similar to the misters used in the produce aisle of grocery stores, that would be positioned along orchard trellises to shoot small puffs of spray directly at tree leaves. Whether the spray would be water to prevent frost damage or a solution containing nutrients or disease controls, the grower could adjust delivery to specific times and targets, he said.

"It's like using a rifle instead of a shotgun," Grieshop said.

The new system would require a much smaller volume of chemicals -- a cost savings for growers -- and would be more environmentally friendly, too. There likely would be no pesticide drift because sprays would be small, low pressure and targeted.

The system likely would be welcomed by neighbors since noisy, fuel-burning farm equipment would be replaced by the silent delivery system.

Grieshop said he will work with scientists from MSU and Cornell and Washington State universities to design prototypes of the system for field trials.

"There are definite engineering hurdles, but they can be overcome," Grieshop said. "It's only in the last decade that micro-emitter irrigation systems have been available."

He said his task is to expand the uses of those systems.

Adapting that system to cherry orchards will pose a challenge -- those trees are not yet as adaptable to the trellis structure used in high-density growth systems, he said. Horticulturists are working to resolve that issue, Grieshop said.

If Grieshop's system works, Donohue said, the next step would be to determine if the return on the investment, in terms of reduced cost for fuel, equipment and chemicals, offsets the cost to put the system in place.

It currently costs $10,000 to $12,000 per acre to plant a high density apple orchard, Grieshop said. It's not known how much more Grieshop's system would add to that cost.

The grant is one of 29 awards, totaling $46 million, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Institutions in 19 states are receiving the grants as part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative that will be used to develop and share science-based tools to address the needs of America's specialty crop industry.

Published: Tue, Nov 15, 2011

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