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Producer Interview: In the Orchard with Tyler Vock

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tyler Vock, Orchard Manager at Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard north of Nebraska City, Nebraska to learn more about the operation and get his advice for beginning farmers considering fruit production.

Q1: How many acres is this farm?
A1: 98 total.

Q2: Which crops do you grow here?
A2: We grow apples, cherries, peaches, strawberries, vegetables, pears, plums, pumpkins, and sweet corn.

Q3: What is your main crop and why?
A3: Apples – it’s what we’re known for at Kimmel Orchard. About half of the total acres here are planted in apples.

Q4: You grow multiple apple varieties. Can you share which ones are your favorites?
A4: My favorites are Honeycrisp, Jonathan, and Pink Lady. The Honeycrisp are a sweet apple; they’re definitely the most popular apple that we grow here. I like the Jonathans because they’re tart. And I like the Pink Lady apples because they’re the last apple of the year so that means we’re almost done for the season.

high-density apple trees on a trellis

High-density tall spindle apple trees at        Kimmel Orchard

Q5: I noticed that you have a portion of the orchard trained to a trellis. What are the benefits of this production system?
A5: The trellis system that we’re doing now is a new way to grow apple trees called tall spindle or high-density planting. It’s a good way to boost early production in apple trees and make your money back faster. You plant the trees three-feet apart with twelve foot rows in between. The maximum height these trees will grow is nine to ten feet. What you really want is early fruit production. They start producing in the second year and then by year five you can harvest about a thousand bushels per acre. If you can accomplish that you’ll make your money back a little bit faster and it’s a more profitable system. Plus I think it’s the best way to make sure that all guests, from the first guest in September to the last guest in October, have a chance to get apples. For me, I think that it’s an easier system than the old trees. Pruning in the winter is a lot easier – you can zip right through those lines, not spending a lot of time on one tree. And if you have a person on each side of the row it seems like it goes really fast. It’s a little bit more work to get them started, but if you do it right it’s an awesome system.

Q6: Are there any differences between now and when you started managing the orchard three years ago?
A6: For me it’s the knowledge that comes with it, so things are easier for me now. When I started I was a row crop kid, born and raised in Nebraska City; I liked to work with cattle. So when I started here it was a pretty steep learning curve. You learn something new every day and I feel that once you know what you know everything gets a little easier here. So I would say the confidence in growing everything just within three years of working here.

Q7: So most of what you know about orchard management you learned on-the-job?
A7: Yes, that, and reading a lot of research papers on how to get everything going. For the most part I learned hands-on – that’s the best way to learn, right?

Q8: What has been your greatest challenge as an orchard manager?
A8: Right now it’s managing fire blight in the area. It’s a bacterium that gets into the trees and if you’re not careful with it, it can really start to harm the orchard. So getting that figured out and working with the spray schedule in general to make sure fungi aren’t becoming a problem, and scouting for pests. It’s difficult, but that’s what needs to be done to make high quality fruit.

Q9: Do you have any projects planned that we should keep a lookout for in the future?
A9: We’re growing sweet corn this year, so that’s one thing that’s different. In about five years we will be replanting our eight acres which is the biggest block of trees that we have. We’ll be going from the old production system to all the trees being trained to the tall spindle system. So instead of 26 rows of trees there will be 47 and instead of 1000 trees we’ll have 9100 trees in there. I still get questions all the time from people that we show this tall spindle model to; they can’t believe that you can grow apple trees that close to each other. But once you explain to them the purpose of it, they get it.

Q10: Is there anything else you would like to share with us about fruit production at Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard?
A10: It’s a lot of hard work but at the end of the year when you get to see families come out and spend the day picking… It makes it all worth a full year of work seeing people out here having fun and getting compliments on the quality of fruit. That’s the best thing about working here.

Q11: What advice do you have for young people thinking about going into fruit production?
A11: Just do your research. If you’re going to choose a tall spindle don’t take any shortcuts, put the work in; if you do it right it’s going to be very profitable for you. And it will be pretty fun too. Every year a new development happens so it’s not like a repetitive job; you’re always doing something different. And if you like being outdoors, I’d say go for it.

For more information on high-density apple plantings:
http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/high-density-apple-orchard-management/
http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/high-density-apple-orchard-management-techniques/

For more information on fire blight:
http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G6020
http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/3000/pdf/HYG_3002_08.pdf

And for more information on Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard and upcoming events, visit http://www.kimmelorchard.org/ and follow their blog at https://kimmelorchard.wordpress.com/.

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