Orchard pruning for cider apple production

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,889.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2018
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Terence Bradshaw
University of Vermont

Annual Reports


  • Fruits: apples, general tree fruits


  • Production Systems: general crop production

    Proposal abstract:

    Hard cider production has increased dramatically in the U.S. in recent years with an annualized growth rate of 50% between 2009 and 2014 and revenues totaling $292.5 million in 2014. In Vermont, orchards are being managed specifically to provide fruit to this expanding market, but prices paid for processing fruit remain below those for fresh market apples. In order to meet demands for fruit supply at lower price points, growers must adapt management to reduce inputs and labor without compromising crop yield or quality. This was proposed by the collaborating stakeholder in order to evaluate reduced-labor practices that may improve profitability of cider apple production in Vermont. In two Vermont orchards, mature ‘McIntosh’ or ‘Empire’ trees will receive four pruning treatments: (1) ‘light’ dormant pruning with no summer pruning; (2) light pruning followed by summer pruning; (3) ‘commercial’ dormant pruning with no summer pruning; and (4) commercial pruning followed by summer pruning. Standard measurements for labor hours, sunlight interception, crop yield, and juice quality will be collected and analyzed to determine potential profitability of each system. Results will be disseminated locally, regionally, and nationally to stakeholders. The principal investigator maintains an email list of growers and cider makers with over 200 subscribers and a blog which receives over 2,000 unique page views annually. In addition, the investigator is a regular presenter at local, regional, and national meetings on apple and cider production.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Commercial orchards in Vermont have begun to shift management of select approximately 100 acres (about 8% of total acreage) of traditional dessert cultivars (i.e., ‘McIntosh’, ‘Cortland’, etc.) to low-input systems in order to reduce input costs and meet lower price points for apples from cideries compared to fresh market apples (Becot, Bradshaw et al. 2016). In each orchard in the project, reduced-intensity pruning programs will be evaluated to assess effects on crop yield, fruit quality, juice quality, and potential profitability. We expect that reduced labor costs associated with dormant and/or summer pruning will improve profitability for these growers. Fruit will be graded to USDA standards (USDA 2002) in order to compare the potential profitability from sales of fruit in the study to both cidery and fresh markets. It is expected that results from this work will result in reduced-intensity pruning systems applied to at least fifty acres of orchards grown in Vermont for cider apple production.

    Project work will be completed in two orchards in Addison and Chittenden Counties, VT during the 2016 and 2017 growing seasons. In each orchard, four pruning treatments will be applied in a randomized complete block design with five single-tree replications per treatment. Treatments will be applied to established ‘McIntosh’ trees on M.26 rootstock (New Haven) or ‘Empire’ trees on M. 7 rootstock (South Burlington) and trained to a freestanding central leader system. Treatments will include: (1) ‘light’ dormant pruning (removal only of broken limbs or those interfering with gross tree structure) with no summer pruning; (2) light pruning followed by summer pruning (removal of current season’s vertical vegetative shoots in the canopy to improve light penetration); (3) ‘commercial’ dormant pruning (standard pruning intensity used in commercial production (Bound and Summers 2001)) with no summer pruning; and (4) commercial pruning followed by summer pruning. Dormant pruning will be performed in February or March, and summer pruning in mid-August prior to harvest. All treatments will be applied to the same trees over two growing seasons.
    For each treatment-replicate, data will be collected for: time to perform pruning, total crop yield (kg/tree) including dropped and harvested fruit, and photosynthetically active radiation within the canopy following standard protocols (Hampson, Quamme et al. 2002). At harvest, a randomly selected sample of 25 fruit per treatment-replicate (tree) will be collected and assessed for fruit size, color, general defects, and USDA grade distribution (Bradshaw, Parsons et al. 2015). In addition, a sub-sample of ten fruit collected for grading will be analyzed for juice quality parameters including pH, titratable acidity, total phenolics, and soluble solids using standard protocols (Miles and King 2014). Data will be subject to analysis of variance (ANOVA) procedures by pruning treatment and orchard site (SAS Institute Inc. 2002-2010). In addition, pruning time will be extrapolated to cost per acre and evaluated against potential orchard profitability per acre based on fruit grade distribution and annually published prices paid for fresh market and cider apples in Vermont (NASS 2014). At annual meetings of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association, growers will be surveyed to assess changes in management including pruning intensity to evaluate the impact of this research on changes in practice.

    Because apples are a perennial plant on which fruit buds are formed in one year which determine the potential crop yield in the following year, the proposed project will be conducted over two growing seasons In order to assess cumulative effects of pruning practices over multiple years. p Project activities will occur according to the following timeline. All activities will be performed by the principal investigator unless referenced otherwise.


    Winter 2015-2016:     Develop treatment randomization scheme in test orchards. Apply pruning treatments in February of March. This activity is expected to occur prior to award notification and receipt of grant funds. Because pruning is typically an annual practice in orchards and the cooperating growers will be growing fruit in the test blocks for cider production, the application of pruning treatments is a low-risk activity, i.e. by pruning or not pruning a selection of trees in the orchard, the grower will not compromise the quality of fresh market fruit by not pruning.

    April-August 2016: Apply standard orchard management practices (pest management, fertility, crop thinning) equally to all study trees.

    August 2016:  Summer prune appropriate treatments. Collect PAR measurements before and after summer pruning if appropriate.

    September 2016: Harvest fruit and collect yield data. Grade fruit to USDA standards, extract juice, and evaluate juice quality parameters.

    2017: Repeat 2016 protocols.

    Winter 2017-2018: Analyze and summarize data, present at stakeholder meetings, publish results in peer-reviewed journal

    Cited References:

    Becot, F. A., T. Bradshaw and D. Conner (2016). "Apple Market Optimization and Expansion through Value-Added Hard Cider Production " HortTechnology In Press.

    Bound, S. and C. Summers (2001). "The Effect of Pruning Level and Timing on Fruit Quality in 'Red Fuji' Apple." Acta Horticulturae 557: 295-302.

    Bradshaw, T., R. Parsons, L. Berkett, H. Darby, R. Moran, E. Garcia, S. Kingsley-Richards, M. Griffith, S. Bosworth and J. Gorres (2015). "Long-term economic evaluation of five cultivars in two organic apple orchard systems in Vermont, USA, 2006-2013." Acta Hort submitted.

    Hampson, C. R., H. A. Quamme and R. T. Brownlee (2002). "Canopy growth, yield, and fruit quality of 'Royal Gala' apple trees grown for eight years in five tree training systems." HortScience 37(4): 627-631.

    Miles, C. A. and J. King (2014). "Yield, Labor, and Fruit and Juice Quality Characteristics of Machine and Hand-harvested ‘Brown Snout’ Specialty Cider Apple." HortTechnology 24(5): 519-526.

    NASS (2014). Annual Bulletin, New England Agricultural Statistics, 2013. G. R. Keough. Concord, NH, New England Agricultural Statistics 61-64.
    SAS Institute Inc. (2002-2010). SAS 9.3. Cary, NC.

    USDA (2002). United States Standards for Grades of Apples. Washington, D.C.,, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Fruit and Vegetable Programs, Fresh Products Branch.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.