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James R. Schupp and T. Auxt Baugher

Hand-thinning of fruit is among the most labor-intensive orchard practices and consequently contributes significantly to peach (Prunus persica) production costs. Prior research conducted by the authors on string blossom thinners for managing peach tree cropload demonstrated that this new technology reduces labor requirement and also improves fruit size. Studies were conducted over two seasons in peach orchards trained to perpendicular V or open-center systems to evaluate possible pruning strategies to improve tree canopy access by string thinners. The objectives were to demonstrate if modifications in fruiting shoot orientation, pruning detail, and/or scaffold accessibility improved flower removal, reduced follow-up hand-thinning requirement, and/or increased fruit size. Blossom removal was improved by either detailed pruning or partial pruning (elimination of all shoots on the side of a limb inaccessible by the thinner spindle) in both training systems. Flower density and fruit set measurements revealed greater differences among pruning treatments compared with hand-thinned control treatments with both fruiting shoot orientation pruning modifications and detail pruning resulting in improved thinning. Thinning efficacy was unaffected by scaffold angle but increased as canopy accessibility ranking increased. Follow-up hand-thinning time was reduced by all treatment, system/cultivar, and year combinations except standard pruning in an open center-trained 2009 trial. Detail pruning consistently improved fruit size compared with hand-thinned control and other pruning treatments in both perpendicular V- and open center-trained orchard plots. The best treatments resulted in a thinning savings of $120/ha to $282/ha in perpendicular V plantings and $26/ha to $46/ha in open-center plantings. Realized economic savings beyond hand-thinning alone ranged from $473/ha to $2875/ha in perpendicular V trials and $28/ha to $293/ha in open-center trials.

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J.R. Schupp, T. Auxt Baugher, S.S. Miller, R.M. Harsh and K.M. Lesser

Hand thinning is a necessary but costly management practice in peach (Prunus persica) production. Organic apple (Malus ×domestica) production also may require hand thinning to adjust crop load. Mechanical devices to aid in thinning have been developed, but none has proven highly efficient and capable of completely replacing hand thinning. Narrow canopy training systems and novel peach tree growth habits offer new opportunities to examine mechanical methods for thinning peach and apple trees. Our studies evaluated mechanical thinning devices on peach and organically grown apple trees. In 2005 and 2006, a U.S Department of Agriculture-designed spiked-drum shaker was used to thin pillar (columnar) peach trees at 52 to 55 days after full bloom. The drum shaker, driven at two different speeds in the orchard, reduced crop load an average of 58% and follow-up hand thinning time by 50%, and increased fruit size by 9% at harvest compared with conventional hand-thinned or nonthinned control trees in 2005. In 2006, the shaker was driven at one speed but operated at two different frequencies. At 260 cycles/minute, the drum shaker removed more fruit and reduced crop load to a greater extent than when operated at 180 cycles/minute, however, fruit size at harvest did not differ between the two operating frequencies. The drum shaker reduced follow-up hand thinning time between 54% and 81%. Horticultural and economic evaluations of the drum shaker and/or a German-designed blossom string thinner were conducted in 2007 in four commercial peach orchards trained to a perpendicular V or quad V system and an organic apple block trained to a narrow vertical axis system. Mechanical thinners reduced peach crop load by an average of 36%, decreased follow-up hand thinning time by 20% to 42%, and increased fruit in higher market value size categories by 35%. The net economic impact of mechanical thinning versus hand thinning alone ranged from $175/ha to $1966/ha. Mechanical thinning at 20% full bloom resulted in more fruit in the large size categories (2.75 inches in diameter and larger) than thinning at 80% full bloom. Detailed counts of flowers on branches with different orientations indicated that pruning may be adjusted to improve thinner performance. The string thinner effectively thinned dwarf apple trees trained to a vertical axis system in a certified organic orchard, resulting in a reduction in hand thinning time and an increase in fruit size. Based on our tests, mechanical thinning appears to be a promising technique for supplementing hand thinning in apple and peach trees.

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T. Auxt Baugher, J.R. Schupp, K.M. Lesser and K. Hess-Reichard

Hand thinning of fruit is among the most labor-intensive orchard practices and consequently contributes significantly to peach (Prunus persica) production costs. Research reported in 2008 on a string blossom thinner for vertical tree canopies demonstrated that this new mechanical method has potential to favorably impact grower profitability by reducing labor requirement and by improving fruit size and quality. A string thinner prototype for open-center tree canopies was tested in six orchards in 2008. Peach blossom removal in upper canopy regions ranged from 23% to 69% with the new string thinner oriented in a horizontal or inclined position to thin the tops of vase-shaped trees. Optimal thinning with the horizontal string thinner was with a 2.0 km·h−1 tractor speed, reducing peach crop load by an average of 47%, reducing follow-up hand thinning time 32%, and increasing fruit in higher market size categories 22% to 31%. Net economic impact (realized economic savings) of mechanical thinning at 2.0 km·h−1 versus hand thinning alone ranged from $799 to $911 per hectare. Total yield was sometimes reduced by string thinner treatments; however, high-market-value yields were comparable across treatments. Two combination treatments—mechanical thinning followed by hand blossom thinning and thinning with a horizontal followed by a vertical string thinner—suggested additional strategies for achieving the most desirable thinning results.

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T. Auxt Baugher, K. Ellis, J. Remcheck, K. Lesser, J. Schupp, E. Winzeler and K. Reichard

Thinning of blossoms or fruitlets is a labor-intensive requirement in the production of peach and nectarine (Prunus persica) fruit of optimum size and quality. Prior research conducted by the authors on string blossom thinners for managing peach tree crop load demonstrated that this new technology reduces labor requirement and improves fruit size. The research reported in the current article was conducted over 2 years on ‘Sugar Giant’ peach and ‘Arctic Sweet’ nectarine to evaluate string blossom thinner efficacy at variable stages of bloom development ranging from pink to petal fall. Blossom removal at the pink stage of bloom development was lower than at other stages in 2008; however, a 150-rpm versus 120-rpm spindle rotation speed resulted in blossom removal similar to the 80% full bloom (FB) treatment in 2009. Blossom removal at the petal fall stage was similar to the open bloom stage with the exception of the 2009 ‘Sugar Giant’ trial, in which blossom removal was higher at 80% FB. Flower density and fruit set of the bloom stage compared with hand-thinned control treatments followed a similar trend with the exception that there were fewer differences in 2009 and in lower canopy regions. Follow-up hand thinning time was reduced by all string thinning/year combinations except ‘Arctic Sweet’ at pink in 2008 and 2009 and at petal fall in 2009. The best treatments reduced follow-up hand thinning time compared with green fruit hand thinning alone by 51% and 41% for ‘Sugar Giant’ and by 42% and 22% for ‘Arctic Sweet’ in Years 1 and 2, respectively. In 2008, the percentage of fruit in the “7.0 cm or greater” size category was increased by all bloom stage treatments in both cultivars. The 2009 size distribution of ‘Arctic Sweet’ fruit was unaffected, but the percentage of ‘Sugar Giant’ fruit in higher market value size categories was increased by the 80% FB and higher rpm pink treatments. Savings in hand thinning time and/or increases in fruit size in both years associated with the bloom stage treatments resulted in a net positive impact of $123/ha to 1368/ha compared with hand thinning alone.

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T. Auxt Baugher, H.W. Hogmire, A.R. Biggs, S.I. Walter, D.W. Leach, T. Winfield and G.W. Lightner

Apple packout audits were conducted during 1991 to 1993 to assess effects of five orchard systems (three cultivars, two age groups) on fruit packout and determine if relationships exist between light quality and productivity. Cultivar/rootstock combinations on 1979 T-trellis and central-leader systems had the lowest light levels and relative yields. Trees on either 1979 3-wire trellis, 1986 MIA, or 1985 West Virginia spindle had the highest light transmission, and trees on 1979 or 1985 West Virginia spindle systems had the highest yields. Extra fancy/fancy packouts across systems ranged from 40% to 85%. `Empire', regardless of system, had the highest packouts, and `Golden Delicious' on 1979 or 1986 central leader had the lowest packouts. A regression analysis comparing percentage packout in grades below fancy to percentage full sun indicated that reduced packouts were related to low light conditions. Orchard system influenced the number of fruit downgraded due to color, russet, bruises, bitter pit, cork spot, apple scab, rots, sooty blotch/fly speck, and tufted apple budmoth. Regression analyses comparing defects to field data indicated that bitter pit decreased as yield efficiency increased, and rot and sooty blotch/fly speck incidence were related to low canopy light penetration. Revenue losses were disproportionate to percentage of downgraded fruit because some defects had a greater impact on grade than others. The greatest revenue losses were for russet in `Golden Delicious' on 1986 central leader ($1656.60/acre) and for bitter pit in `Golden Delicious' on 1979 T-trellis ($1067.30/acre). Total losses in returns for individual systems ranged from $453.71/acre for `Empire' on 3-wire trellis to $3145.49/acre for `Golden Delicious' on 1986 central leader. The comparisons of young versus mature system yields and packouts indicate that medium- to high-density vertical or inclined canopy systems are superior to horizontal or low-density vertical freestanding systems. The cost-benefit analyses prescribe areas where management can be changed in existing systems to increase profitability.

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T. Auxt Baugher, J. Schupp, K. Ellis, J. Remcheck, E. Winzeler, R. Duncan, S. Johnson, K. Lewis, G. Reighard, G. Henderson, M. Norton, A. Dhaddey and P. Heinemann

Hand thinning is a necessary and costly management practice in peach (Prunus persica) production. Stone fruit producers are finding it increasingly difficult to find a workforce to manually thin fruit crops, and the cost of farm labor is increasing. A new “hybrid” string thinner prototype designed to adjust crop load in vase or angled tree canopies was evaluated in processing and fresh fruit plantings in varying production systems in four U.S. growing regions in 2009. Data were uniformly collected across regions to determine blossom removal rate, fruit set, labor required for follow-up green fruit hand thinning, fruit size distribution at harvest, yield, and economic impact. String thinner trials with the variable tree forms demonstrated reduced labor costs compared with hand-thinned controls and increased crop value due to a larger distribution of fruit in marketable and higher market value sizes. Blossom removal ranged from 17% to 56%, hand thinning requirement was reduced by 19% to 100%, and fruit yield and size distribution improved in at least one string-thinning treatment per experiment. Net economic impact at optimum tractor and spindle speeds was $462 to $1490 and $264 to $934 per acre for processing and fresh market peaches, respectively. Case study interviews of growers who thinned a total of 154 acres indicated that commercial adoption of string-thinning technology would likely have positive impacts on the work place environment.