Problem and Justification. In a recent survey of apple growers, one prominent Vermont respondent stated, “The cider apple market represents the first real increase in demand for New England Apples in a generation. While sales of our dessert fruit have been flat or declining, we see this market as essential to maintaining the competitiveness of our industry.” New England apple growers have increased production of hard cider apples, but currently, demand for such fruit exceeds supply despite potentially high returns. Production of cider apples is limited by: unknown performance metrics for specialty cider cultivars when grown in New England; unique pest management considerations; and alternate bearing cycles that reduce yield. At regional educational meetings in 2014-2017, and in national surveys since 2014, apple growers stated that biennial bearing, cultivar adaptability, appropriate orchard training systems, and increased susceptibility to specific diseases, particularly fire blight, present significant limitations to increased expansion of cider apple production [1-4]. Specialty cider apple cultivars are highly-valued by the growing cider industry, with prices similar to high-quality dessert cultivars that have shown stagnant growth in the past decade. Cider apples also have lower infrastructure and management needs because lack of demand for blemish free fruit creates an opportunity to grow them with fewer chemical inputs. In addition, postharvest cold storage, sorting, and packing are greatly reduced compared to dessert apples.
Solution and Approach. New and existing production practices, specifically bloom thinning, mechanical pruning and reevaluation of pest management models for cider apple cultivars can alleviate these problems, but information on how to implement these techniques without reducing yield or increasing production costs is insufficient. The knowledge needed to best grow cider varieties would enable growers to diversify markets, increase profitability and reduce pesticide use, and enhance the economic and environmental sustainability of their farms. We will conduct an educational program combined with research to compare methods that alleviate biennial bearing, to document the need for crop protection chemicals and establish tolerance levels for primary pests, and to identify cultivars less susceptible to by fire blight. This bold, multi-state and multidisciplinary project is expected to yield substantial return on NESARE investment, by supporting a growing but challenged component of the New England apple industry that will support new, high-value markets for fruit that will not compete with present dessert fruit markets. Thus, we will help growers to generate new revenue from increased production of a novel crop.
Performance targets from proposal:
Fifty growers will plant or manage cider apple cultivars, adopt sustainable horticultural practices, and reduce pesticide use on 400 acres of apples produced for making fermented cider in New England, and will increase gross revenue by $5000 per acre ($2 million annually) and reduce risk through market diversification.