Mighty Oak Orchards is a 2 1/2 acre farm in Northern Michigan, committed to the sustainable raising of heirloom apple trees for cider makers and old world apple lovers. The farm has been operating since 2015, having previously been an abandoned orchard. Sustainable practices that were carried out before this grant were related to water re-use and conservation through a rainwater collection system, and use of cereal rye as a cover crop and alfalfa legume as a soil conditioner. These practices started in 2016.
Apple scab and bacterial fireblight need frequent consideration in high density apple orchards. These close proximity and high growth-rate systems often have a drawback of increased disease management effort. Non-chemical disease control includes removing surrounding source-wood for these pathogens and insect vectors, planting disease-resistant varieties/rootstocks, and frequent scouting to remove infected parts of the trees.
Exclusion netting has been popular in Canada and France for reducing insect damage on apples at critical control periods and has shown promise in protecting blueberry crops from insects in the U.S. This cultural control has also shown promise for controlling apple scab in published research, while there isn’t much data on fireblight control. Theoretically, netting will reduce wind, rain and insect transport for the bacteria that causes fireblight. This has promise for producing organic high density apples in moist environments where fireblight occurs, as Streptomycin and Kasumin, are not organic certified. Queva, Double Nickel and Serenade are OMRI listed but less effective. They could have greater fireblight control activity in combination with exclusion netting. We will compare different netting materials and combinations of conventional and organic products to control these diseases and try to identify or reduce technical and labor hurdles to using netting.
1: Evaluate three different commercial exclusion nets and no-net control for durability, micro-climate effects, insect exclusion, and wind and rainwater passage factors at all three farms.
2: Test different fungicides and bacteriocides with the three exclusion nets and a no-net control in statistically significant tests to compare outcomes at three different orchards.
3: Investigate solutions to make exclusion netting easier to use in high-density orchards. Designs to pull the netting back over rows, open on one side, or have seal-able openings can make them practical.
4: Share findings through field days, website and social media, conference presentation.
In the first year of this project, 2 year old feathered trees were planted into new orchard ground at Little Red Organics and Mighty Oak Orchards which served as the farms receiving experimental treatment of row netting. New cider variety tree plantings were trellised at 18″ spacing on 8′ rows. The trees were treated for fireblight during green tip with Queva Double Nickel, and subsequently applied with firewall and/or agrimycin streptomycin. Kasugamycin was not applied due to cost, and Apogee was not applied in order to reduce the potential for stunting trees. Row netting from Bluefire Farm supply was used exclusively in the first year as it was the least expensive product available. This netting was applied to 6 rows at each farm, in 150 foot lengths. At first, the netting was suspended over the top trellis wire that would eventually be used to support the trees. Two additional trellis posts at the outside of the perimeter of the planting were used to support a between row wire, which was used to keep the netting off the trees and their feathered branches that were not whipped back yet. Later on, EasyKlip clips and supporting S clips from Dubois Agrinovation were purchased to suspend the netting from the top wire and these intermediate wires between the rows. Irrometers were used to study soil moisture under the netting to help schedule irrigation events and monitor soil impacts of the netting microclimate effects. Temperature and humidity readings under the nets were also taken as data points and used as a proxy to monitor for the potential for the nets to reduce apple scab. Insect monitoring served as an important proxy for the ability to control fireblight. Dr. George Sundin at Michigan State University’s Horticulture dept. was contacted about taking netting samples for research trials using Erwenia spp. (fireblight bacteria) inoculum.
This summer proved interesting with regards to weather and the ability to deploy the nets effectively. One of the problems we foresaw with the nets, which proved true was that they might not be durable enough to be deployed over an individual trellis row, having to be instead draped over an entire trellis system. A large amount of rain hit Western Michigan in early May which affected our ability to plant trees as soon as we would have liked. This helped us miss the peak of the scab season because leaves were not at green tip yet, however it opened the trees to being vulnerable to fireblight bacteria, as the trees were just starting leafing out at the time of the start of the region’s king bloom. This meant that pollinators would not be the culprit for potentially spreading fireblight to our trees, the main reason for the netting. Instead we would have to worry about wind-dispersed Erwenia Spp. spores, which the nets would be less likely to protect trees against. Luckily, no trees got fireblight in this year. We felt it was important to look at environmental factors underneath the netting vs. the no-netting control to see if moisture could be controlled enough to control the apple scab fungus, and if temperatures under netting could be manipulated to make a slightly less hospitable environment for the fireblight bacteria. What was found was the decreased light penetration, the manufacturer proports a 78% light penetration, helped to increase the longevity of high moisture conditions, but not necessarily increase the peak measurement of humidity or soil moisture. Temperature was seemingly unaffected by the row netting except in extreme conditions, either hot days with full sunshine or days with excessive wind, in which there was a slight muting effect. Because the nets were not deployed early enough in the season to be effective on insects that carry fireblight, the study on the ability to control the movement of certain insects, especially pollinators, is inconclusive. We are hoping to observe this in the following field season. The extra nets from Bluefire farm supply were used experimentally to develop more useful tall trellis net deployment systems, recognizing that the current state of row netting is to be used for ground vegetables in high tunnels, highbush blueberries and grapes. PVC support tubes were one system used for deployment, but we eventually settled on EasyKlips and S Clips from Dubois Agrinovation suspended over the trellis from a freestanding topwire and two lateral intermediate row wires, which could also support the netting hanging from the adjacent netting. One odd thing that was unexpected that was noticed was the increased row-lane grass growth under the netting as opposed to the nearby no-netting control. I would like to see if this holds true the following year, but it noticeably made weed and pest control seem to be more difficult, and I want to see if there is a pattern here.
Educational & Outreach Activities
An annual tour for CSA members at Little Red Organics got to see the orchard netting deployment using the suspended beneath a top wire technique, which was the first time this system was tested. There was also opportunity for people to directly observe the different microclimate under the netting, as the tour took place on a hot sunny day in July. Next, Jordan got to present some of the findings at the Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show in Traverse City on January 15-16. This was in front of an audience of about 100, and was tied into talking about wild animal exclusion from cropping areas for food safety reasons. Lastly, Jordan had a picture of the netting taken by Stephen Klosterman from Fruit Grower News with a caption about the orchard netting, which is going to be pictured in an upcoming article in the trade magazine.
The project is too much in its infancy to come with any true takeaways about lessons learned, however, on a preliminary basis it can be assessed that over-trellis row netting may not work well for orchard blocks exposed to high winds. Also, even though the netting blocks some rain from getting through, humidity levels seem to rise slower than the surrounding control but also fall more slowly as well. This could have negative implications for managing apple scab, or so I’m told. Lastly, the netting with 78% light transparency seems to have no real effect on tree growth, but for some reason looks like it correlates with greater grass growth in sod lanes between trellises.
Nothing of significance yet, first year of project.