Ag entry for non-farming FFA’ers
SIBLEY-Brian Gottlob was considering what he could do to help his FFA students think about agriculture on a larger scale. Then one day, it hit him – plant an orchard.
“Corn and soybeans, though very common, can be a difficult entry point into agriculture,” said Brian Gottlob, FFA advisor for Sibley-Ocheyedan High School, “but a majority of students in FFA are not actively engaged in production agriculture.
“This was a way to get them involved in the day-to-day decision-making process, as well as the opportunity to experience the cause-and-effect results of those decisions.”
Gottlob said he sees it as expanding their thinking process.
“I wanted to teach the kids about niche markets,” he said. “There’s a huge drive for locally-grown products and organically-grown products, and planting an orchard will be a good way to (experience) that.”
Gottlob said the main focus of that project will be ag literacy, teaching students and the public that there is more to crop agriculture than the typical row-crops grown in the Corn Belt.
“Ag literacy is something that should equal-if not match-funds spent on research,” Gottlob said. “I want our kids to think outside the box.”
The 53 trees for the orchard are on order and were funded with the help of grant money. They will be planted on an area north of the high school as soon as the weather allows. Since the students will be caring for an apple orchard, Gottlob invited some people into his classroom who could teach his FFA students and the public about the proper selection, planting and care of fruit trees.
Bob Purvis, horticulturist and owner of Purvis Nursery and Orchard in Homedale, Idaho was one of three men who spoke to a group of around 20 people from the Sibley area, interested in learning more about selecting and caring for fruit trees.
Purvis said there are three basic things that should be considered when purchasing fruit trees to be planted in the Midwest. He said they should be cold hearty, disease resistant, and should come from a reputable nursery.
“Your trees should come from a place that specializes in fruit trees, as opposed to getting them from box stores,” he said. “You should know what you’re getting. They should be able to tell you what (kind of tree) has been grafted on to it as a root stock.”
Purvis said soil testing is important, making sure a specific kind of fruit tree would grow well in any particular kind of soil, and examining it for important nutrients needed for growing fruit trees, outside of the usual nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. There are specific nitrates, sulfates and borates needed to be present in soil in order for fruit trees to grow successfully.
Land slopes and placement of trees are also important, he said, not only for drainage, but for proper sun exposure and frost removal at various times during cold weather days.
He said testing the drainage in the planting area is important.
“If you dig a hole and fill it with water, and the water is still there 24 hours later, the soil is unfavorable for growing fruit trees,” Purvis said.
Though he didn’t want to discourage people from planting standard-height fruit trees, Purvis said semi-dwarf and dwarf trees are easier to spray, prune and harvest. He said semi-dwarf trees can stand a long time without support, but if they are supported in the first years of their lives, they will grow more vigorously and produce fruit earlier.
He said choosing fruits that will ripen at different times is important for those wanting to plant many fruit trees, so everything doesn’t need to be harvested at the same time.
He added that tree spacing is important as well, especially for those wanting to plant many fruit trees. He said apple tree spacing depends on the variety, but certain varieties of pear trees could grow well spaced up to 10 feet apart because they are narrower in nature. He said peach trees need to be further apart and need to be pruned regularly.
Purvis said pruning trees opens the tree up to more sunlight and air exposure. He said it’s important not only for growth and fruit ripening, but for standability.
“If you live in a location like this and you prune your trees regularly, a 90-mile-per-hour wind would not be as likely to knock the tree down because the air would flow through the tree, instead of against it,” Purvis said.
He added that more light allows for better maturing of fruit.
“Fruits born in the center of the tree are typically smaller and misshapen, they get less ripe and are less flavorful,” he said.
He said trees are exposed to the most light if they are pruned and shaped to look like a Christmas tree, with shorter branches on top allowing sunlight to get into the tree and down through the center of the tree.
Pruning technique also matters, he said. Limbs should be pruned to the trunk, he said, while limbs that are nearly the same size as the (trunk as it begins to grow) should be pruned at a slight diagonal. Bark protection should always be a priority when pruning trees, and using “tree paint” is okay, but should be researched first before applying to fruit trees.
Purvis said some tips for jump starting younger trees include the removal of: dead, diseased and dying limbs;limbs that cross over each other and rub on each other (reducing chances for diseases to enter the fruit tree); interior pointing limbs;limbs that up through the interior of the tree;limbs that form a circle (or pruning them back so they point out).
Purvis said it’s important to walk around each tree being pruned, examining it from every angle. He also said to always wait until it gets to be 20 degrees at night or more to prune in cold weather.
He added that, when pruning back a large limb, it should be done to within one-eighth of an inch from the actual tree trunk.
“Pruning is an art. It can be learned by much practice and seeing the results. If you prune too much the tree will go into a vegetative mode and the tree can die easily,” said John Fuerst, horticulturist from Rushmore, Minn., one of the speakers for the night.
Fuerst told a group there that pollination is best done with bees, though man-made pollination techniques can also work. He said the use of bees stimulates a tree’s fruit production, creating more and larger fruit, and fruit on trees earlier.
Fuerst recommended not using mulch at the base of trees, saying it can promote bacteria and mold problems, which can damage a tree’s root system. He promoted the use of regular yard grass around the base of fruit trees to keep soil healthy and reduce disease.
“Proper pruning and spraying is the key to keeping a fruit tree healthy,” Fuerst said.
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