IFTA Day 2: Pennsylvania by bus

Pennsylvania grower Blake Slaybaugh, right, discusses pruning techniques and rootstocks with members of the International Fruit Tree Association during the group’s annual conference tour on Feb. 14 in Biglerville. (Matt Milkovich/Good Fruit Grower)

Day 2 of the International Fruit Tree Association’s 65th Annual Conference and Tours, held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, was about hopping on buses and seeing South Central Pennsylvania’s tree fruit industry in person. 

The conference, called “Seeking the Fruit Production Sweet Spot,” opened Sunday, Feb. 13, with a full day of educational sessions. The morning session started with a focus on orchard replant challenges and establishment advice, followed by an in-depth look at the latest information on rapid/sudden apple decline. The afternoon sessions focused on technology, with updates on the latest automation and precision agriculture technologies for tree fruit.

But it was Day 2 when the IFTA members got to see some of those emerging technologies in person. At Penn State University’s Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, professor Long He’s ag engineering research team displayed some of their latest projects, including a robotic branch pruner. Graduate students Md Sultan Mahmud and Wenan Yuan discussed using lidar technology for airblast spray accuracy and drones for frost protection, respectively. (Good Fruit Grower has stories on both technologies coming soon.) 

Out in the field, pomologist Jim Schupp stood in a peach block and discussed his peach rootstock trials. Productive semidwarfing and dwarfing rootstocks for peaches are a reality now, he said, and the peaches might be in the same position apples were a few decades ago, when high-density plantings were starting to become the norm, he said.

At Hollabaugh Bros. in Biglerville, the Hollabaugh family showcased the benefits of diversification — with a large farm market, more than 50 apple varieties, about 75 acres of peaches and 25 acres of pears. Though pears don’t take up as many acres as other fruits, they’re a crucial part of the family’s crop mix, said grower Bruce Hollabaugh. 

Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners packs, ships and markets apples for more than 40 farm families in South Central Pennsylvania. IFTA members saw their packing facility in action, including robotic palletizers and a presizer line. 

At Mt. Ridge Farms in Biglerville the Slaybaugh family showed IFTA some pruning techniques they use in a Honeycrisp block on various rootstocks, and they showed their impressive farm machinery repair facility, which looks equipped to fix just about anything that breaks down.

by Matt Milkovich

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