25% of Fruitgrowing Agricultural Productive Capacity in the Okanagan is Wasted

Here’s an industrial apple plantation after harvest. The trees are in long rain rows to facilitate mechanized farming, using multi-ton tractors and spraying equipment (combined weight of about 5 tonnes). After harvest, the impact of the equipment on the soil is plain to see. Average orchard compaction runs to 120 tonnes per year running alongside the tree rows per year.

I estimate that 25% of the soil above is heavily compacted, which means, effectively, it carries less than enough oxygen to adequately support life, reduces tree growth by up to 75%, dramatically reduces photosynthesis due to narrowing of leaf stomata, and increases production of ethylene gasses (hastening ripening in storage). Compensation will have to be made through increased fertilization, leading to decreased fruit flavour and increased orchard nitrate run-off, compounded by the inability of the soil to hold water or water-based nutrients Think about it. There are 35,000 acres of vineyard and orchard in the Okanagan. For the benefit of mechanized production, about 25% of the soil surface is lost due to heavy equipment uses, or 8,500 acres, and the ability of the trees and vines to prosper on the other 26,500 acres is reduced by up to 75%. Is that a fair trade?  We could effectively eliminate heavy equipment and free up 8500 acres for new production, which would be enough land for between 850 and 1700 young farmers. While you’re wondering about that, here is that orchard two years ago. Have another look…

See the leaves that the frost has dropped below the trees Those brown strips are lying on weed-sprayed land. As you can see, another quarter of the land has been sprayed with weed-killers.  Between compaction and weed-killing, in other words, only 50% of the land is reacting naturally to the atmosphere, and the land is potentially carrying only 50% of the microbes needed to feed these trees, requiring yet more artificial nutrients. Presumably, a system of managing the trees and the removal of the crop without the heavy equipment would be subsidized by decreased nutrient use, increased tree health and productivity, and decreased capital dependency, all offset by an increased entrepreneurial pool. Ah, why not have a look in the winter, before you make up your mind:

This expensive system of posts and wires is designed to eliminate labour, allowing for this land to be farmed with a minimum of employment and a maximum of capital investment. In other words, those 850 farmers would be working on this land if it weren’t for this mechanized system that has replaced them. Not only would the land be healthier, but so would the community. If you think of it, though, apples are shipped to packing facilities in 800 pound containers. There they are loaded into 32 pound containers, or even 20 pound ones, before being shipped to market. It would take a lot to convince me that we couldn’t eliminate the weight load on orchards by moving the fruit out of the orchard on lightweight fruit-bearing systems (they exist), even ones that made use of the pole systems. At  $25,000 -$75,000 per orchard/vineyard acre, a 30 acre orchard revitalizing its 25% lost land would have an instant land investment of between approximately $250,000 and $750,000. I am sure a system could be worked out for a tiny fraction of that benefit. Mind you, we could also talk about the 25% of fruit-growing land that is currently idle in the Greater Kelowna area, due to land speculation and gentrification issues. If that number holds for the entire value, then we need to revise our figures: 50% of Okanagan fruitgrowing land, or enough for 1700 full time orchard owners and their families, is being wasted, right now, today, every day. Do you want to chop it up another way? Sure: something between 25% and 50% of the horticultural water in the Okanagan is being wasted, without even taking into account the need for increased irrigation to make up for poor plant vigour. And here’s the thing: we ran out of water in 1992. That was, again (what’s with these numbers?) 25 years ago.


2 replies »

  1. Dear Harold, I’m of two minds about espalier-ing. I hate to make a tree lose its natural shape. On the other hand, intensive production is what I do in my greenhouse and I prune tomatoes. But the vehiclular traffic in the orchard is ridiculous. I’m a dreamer: if one supposes that all that spraying and dusting is minimized or eliminated, why would horse and cart not be the preferred transport system? Actually, David Kline and others Amish suggest that the hoof-work of horses is not just less weight per square inch, but of a different “kind” of pressure, one that is certainly less harmful to soil structure and may even be helpful.

    (Sorry to go on so long, but. . . ) Another thing that is more and more on my mind is this whole business of economic return. The goal seems to be that single individual orchardist or family operation can make the orchard its whole income. Ergo: heavy investment in larger pieces of land with the concomitant “row-waste” you show, capital-intensity, etc. We have the same view in the ranching, poultry, commodity crop sector. How strange? I don’t recall from history that this was the norm. For example, a sad example, the men often had a second job: war, cattle-raiding, etc. In the Hidatsa culture, the women did garden-farming, men hunted game but only part-time, you might say. And without romanticizing history, I think it fair to say that there was quite a strong community developed among those farmers/hunters/foragers.

    It seems to me eminently sensible that St. Paul (and Jewish rabbis traditionally) also had a trade, that his “calling” involved both. So what is so strange about a farming community using much less capital and higher employment on the farm while practicing other income-generators as well. And for those of us who grew up in the one-trade world–like my wife and me–retirement on a farm provides my neighbour a change to lease land at a reasonable rate, opportunities to me to do non-funded agricultural trials with all my retirement time, and a surplus of garden, forage, and beef that we sometimes sell but often simply give away.

    End of prattle. Shalom, Curt

    On Sun, Nov 26, 2017 at 10:22 PM, Okanagan Okanogan wrote:

    > Harold Rhenisch posted: “Here’s an industrial apple plantation after > harvest. The trees are in long rain rows to facilitate mechanized farming, > using multi-ton tractors and spraying equipment (combined weight of about 5 > tonnes). After harvest, the impact of the equipment on the s” >


    • Hi, Curt! So am I. This isn’t technically espalier work, mind, with its spreads and fans. More like sticks, hacked off. The good news is that in 1940, John Bibby was picking 2200 boxes of Newtons per acre one year and 0 the next, or 1100 boxes, average, which exceeds the production on these trees. That was in Naramata, on a 40 x 40 foot spacing. In 1973, Hans Rhenisch really did produce 2000 boxes of Red Delicious per acre, on trees spaced 20 x 20, and again the next year. I picked those things. That’s more than double current production on these sticks. I love horses and think there’s a place for them. There’s also a place for foot, walking tractor, rails, conveyors and other systems. On Desoley on Lake Geneva, grapes are brought down steep slopes by the tonne on overhead rail carts, and unloaded at the roadside below. We already move hundreds of thousands of tonnes of minerals by conveyor. Surely, quick-set up and take-down conveyor systems, or light cogged mono-rails could deal with most everything. I like your thoughts on economic return. We used to do that in this valley, too, with work in the packing sheds balanced by work in the fields, but that went by the wayside in the struggles of the 1970s. Still, I chose 10 acres as the traditional one-man-job footprint for an orchard, as. Ted Swales set up in 1952 in Cawston for returning Vets… but we know more now and could reduce that to 5 acres, full-time, or 2 acres with a trade. One trick is to involve the trade in the farm, rather than separating them off and making capital replace cleverness. Cheers! Harold


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