Five Things I Learned about Growing Fruit Trees in the Hood River Valley
Bird and mammal predation is a problem everywhere. Across the hundreds of acres of orchard land around Mt. Hood, in my discussions with orchard employees and owners, one topic came up multiple times: birds are a problem. Birds enjoy fruit, especially when it’s ripe or nearly ripe. The same problem plagues many of our customers. One of the most common questions we receive is how to protect fruit trees from birds. We often recommend bird netting, the most commonly available “solution” for bird problems, though it’s not a perfect or easy fix.
The commercial orchards I visited used two different methods to control birds. One of those methods is reflective metallic tape. This tape was placed on a branch of every tree to blow in the wind like the video on Facebook.
The other method involved “frightening devices.” These were described as devices that made a “gun shot sound” anytime a bird landed on a tree. These devices are clearly more expensive than the reflective tape and they are apparently not a perfect solution, since the birds could learn (believe it or not) to not be afraid of the sound.
At the end of the day, these orchards do lose fruit to birds. For the home orchard owner, the one takeaway from my conversations with orchard owners and employees was that the reflective tape works better than the “gun shot devices.” But no solution to this problem is perfect and you can count on losing some fruit.
All modern fruit trees need to be sprayed with something.
The orchards I visited were almost all of the conventional type, with rows of the same type of fruit trees across hundreds of acres. In monoculture settings like that, conventional spraying is by far the most common method of insect and disease control (We did visit one orchard that only used organic sprays, but since they were surrounded by conventional orchards, they could not be certified as organic).
My takeaway from talking to orchard owners and employees about spraying was this: modern fruit tree varieties will most likely need to be sprayed with something at some point in their growth cycle. Regular spraying of trees helps prevent disease and allows the trees to produce the perfect fruit that customers like to buy at the supermarket.
But for the home gardener, small scale grower, or commercial orchard that isn’t surrounded by conventionally sprayed orchards, organic sprays are definitely an option. We’ve been experimenting with organic sprays for fruit trees in our orchard and for the fruit trees we grow and sell. This spray has impressed us:
Fruit trees can grow and produce for decades given the right conditions.
I was amazed at the old pear and apple trees that were still producing in the Hood River Valley. The trees were not changed on a regular basis – apple and pear trees were replaced with they died. In contrast, here in East Texas, we usually replace peach trees on a 12-15 year cycle, since peach production drops after that. Apples and pears, however, will produce for decades, including in the South. Decades-old trees were in many of the orchards we saw in Oregon.
Irrigation is important everywhere, even in the “perfect climate.” I was amazed at the how perfect the climate was in the Hood River Valley for conventional fruit production (of common varieties), in terms of rainfall and chill hours (though I will say that we have a better climate for peaches and the natives we sell). But…even there, orchards are irrigated. Most are irrigated with drip irrigation tubes stretched along the ground, but a few of the orchards were irrigated with overhead sprinklers. The only advantage of the sprinklers would be irrigating during late freezes to protect young fruit and flowers from freezing. Otherwise, drip irrigation is a far better method of fruit tree irrigation, since it wastes less water and prevents contact with water that may splash up fungal disease spores from the ground.
Full commercial production on a large scale requires an infrastructure. Besides the orchards, what impressed me about the Hood River Valley were the support businesses that had developed around the orchard business. These are crates that were stacked in various places among the orchards; they are filled with fruit at harvest (hand harvesting seems to still be the norm in this area) and taking to packing and sorting businesses (a few of these may have been co-ops or something owned by the growers):
A few of these packing businesses are on railroad tracks, where the produce can be taken to right after it’s picked and sorted. I didn’t really get into the process of what happens to the fruit once it leaves these businesses. It made me realize how great farmer’s markets are – you can grow just about any quantity of produce and have a market of local customers who want to buy your product.
Birds are a problem in orchards; use metallic (mylar) tape or “bird frightening devices” (probably not a good choice in town);
Fruit trees will need to be sprayed at some point; more so if the fruit is to look “perfect” for the supermarket or other customer;
Fruit trees are an investment and may very well produce for decades;
Fruit tissue includes a lot of water, so plan on watering trees, especially when it’s dry and fruit is on the branches;
In many places, the best place to sell produce will be a farmer’s market instead of the supermarket, especially on a large scale.