Cider, or “hard cider” as it is typically known in the United States, is fermented apple juice with 0.5% to 7% alcohol by volume (U.S. Department of Treasury, 2001). Nonfermented, unfiltered apple juice is referred to as “fresh cider” or “sweet cider,” and the term “apple juice” indicates the liquid from pressed apples has been filtered to remove solids (Khanizadeh et al., 2000; Trowbridge, 1917). Hereafter, the term “juice” will be used to refer to nonfermented apple juice, and the term “cider” will be used to describe the fermented beverage. Until the late 1800s, cider was the most popular alcoholic beverage made and consumed in the United States; however, by the early 1900s, cider had essentially disappeared from U.S. markets (Proulx and Nichols, 1997). The rapid decline of cider was due to a combination of factors, primarily a high influx of German and eastern European immigrants who preferred beer, and many farmers who were sympathetic to the Temperance Movement cut down their apple trees (Watson, 1999).
Cider is currently seeing a revival in the United States and although it only accounts for 1% of the alcoholic beverage market, it is the fastest growing alcohol market segment, with 54% increase in production each year from 2007 to 2012 (Morton, 2013; U.S. Department of Treasury, 2013). In 2007, 0.8 million gallons of cider were produced in the United States; this increased nearly 7-fold to 5.2 million gallons in 2012. The volume of cider produced in Washington State grew by over 3-fold between 2007 and 2012 (from 44,387 to 173,288 gal), a 37% growth rate per year, and accounted for 6% of the total U.S. cider production in 2007 and 3% in 2012. The number of cideries in Washington increased 7-fold in this time period, from four cideries in 2008 to 29 in 2014 (Brown, 2014; Northwest Cider Association, 2014).
To meet the new demand for cider in the United States, there is increasing demand for apples to make quality cider. Quality cider is traditionally made from apple varieties that are classified as bittersweet (tannins > 0.2%, acids < 0.45%) or bittersharp (tannins > 0.2%, acids > 0.45%) (Barker, 1903; Barker and Burroughs, 1953). Historically, growers both in Europe and the United States selected cider apple varieties for these traits (Alwood, 1903; Barker, 1911; Barker and Burroughs, 1953; Buell, 1869; Trowbridge, 1917). Most finished ciders usually contain several apple varieties that are blended to attain a final product that has desirable levels of acidity, polyphenols, and the alcohol that results from fermentation of naturally occurring sugar (Khanizadeh et al., 2000; Lea, 2008; Merwin et al., 2008; Pollard, 1953). Most cider makers in the United States use cull fruit from fresh/dessert apple orchards to form the cider base as this fruit tends to be more readily available and relatively inexpensive; they then augment this with juice of specialty cider varieties if available (Merwin et al., 2008; Moulton et al., 2010). In an informal survey in 2012 and 2013, five prominent cider makers in Washington and Oregon indicated they paid $0.10 to $0.25 per pound for cull fruit of fresh/dessert apples and $0.15 to $0.75 per pound for specialty cider apple varieties (S. Galinato, personal communication).
To meet market demand for specialty cider apples, growers in the United States require cost-effective orchard practices to be cost competitive with other agricultural production systems. In the United Kingdom, which has a long history of cider production and is the world’s largest producer of cider as well as the largest market, fruit is almost exclusively harvested by machine (National Association of Cider Makers, 2010). Specialty cider apple growers use tractor-mounted tree shakers to knock fruit to the ground, then tractor-mounted air blowers and mechanical brushes are used to sweep up the fruit from the orchard floor (Fitzgerald et al., 2013; Lea, 2008). These methods were developed for traditional orchards with large, widely spaced trees, and are still used today in the United Kingdom as cider production is focused in regions where trees on dwarfing rootstock are not sufficiently productive (K. Evans, personal communication).
Washington State is the largest producer of apples in the United States, and with around 156,000 acres of apples, accounted for 48% of the U.S. apple supply in 2011 [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2014]. Modern dessert apple orchards include dwarfing rootstock and trellis systems with 1200 to 1800 trees/acre (Fallahi, 2012; Lehnert, 2010; Marshall and Andrews 1994; Schotzko and Granatstein, 2005; Washington State University Extension, 2013). New specialty cider apple orchards in Washington include semidwarfing rootstocks and ≈700 trees/acre (Galinato et al., 2014). Cider fruit is harvested by hand, and hand harvest accounts for 46% of the total annual variable costs when the orchard is in full production (Galinato et al., 2014). Fruit size of most cider apple varieties is smaller than standard dessert apple varieties, and it can take up to four times longer to pick one bin of cider apples than a bin of dessert apples (A. Zimmerman, personal communication). Cost of harvest labor is a significant consideration especially in areas without a large agricultural labor force, where labor costs are high, or both.
Washington is also the leading raspberry (Rubus idaeus) production region in the United States, and with 9800 acres and 62.7 million pounds of production, accounted for 89% of the U.S. acreage and 65% of production in 2012 (USDA, 2014). Raspberries destined for the processing market are harvested with machines that are driven over the row. These over-the-row small fruit harvesters include vertically oriented spiked-drum shakers that rotate freely and cause fruit to drop (Funt et al., 1998). Fruit fall onto a catch plate, roll into cups, and are conveyed vertically to a cleaning and sorting belt at the top of the harvester. Sorted fruit are collected in field containers, which are then removed from the machine by hand at the end of the row by lowering the fruit collection platform. Over-the-row harvesters typically used for raspberry harvest in northwest Washington may be suitable for harvesting trellised cider apples. Small-scale cider apple growers generally press fruit within a few days to 1 month after harvest; therefore, fruit damage that occurs from machine harvest may negatively affect juice quality characteristics. In this 2-year study of ‘Brown Snout’ bittersweet specialty cider apple grafted onto M.27 and East Malling/Long Ashton 9 (EMLA9) rootstocks, we compared the total weight of harvested fruit, labor hours for harvest, tree and fruit damage, and fruit and juice quality for traditional hand harvest and mechanical harvest using an over-the-row small fruit harvester.
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