Can shorter peach and nectarine trees reduce labor costs without sacrificing fruit quality and yield?

The answer to this million-dollar question may develop soon at a four-acre test orchard at the University of California (UC) Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center located south of Fresno.

UC researchers are planting semi-drawfing rootstocks in various densities and configurations in a large, integrated experiment on virtually every aspect of peach and nectarine production.

“We’re designing ‘ladderless’ orchards which have the potential to cut labor costs by 50 percent or more and improve worker safety,” said UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) specialist Ted DeJong.

DeJong and Kevin Day, UCCE farm advisor in Tulare County, are leading the unprecedented experiment.

Conventional peach and nectarine trees typically reach about 13 feet in height. To prune trees and harvest fruit, workers use ladders, which consume about 50 percent of the workday, to set up, climb, and move.

Ladders are dangerous. This is why peach and nectarine growers pay about 40 percent more for workers’ compensation insurance.

Smaller trees

Developed by UC breeders, the new rootstocks will produce trees 7-8 feet tall which can be pruned and harvested from the ground.

With the right orchard management - which Day and DeJong will test in the plots - the shorter trees could produce just as much high-quality fruit as their lofty kin.

“Ladder-less orchards would be huge for our industry,” said Bill Chandler who grows several varieties of peaches and nectarines on his 250-acre Chandler Farms in Selma, Calif.

“There are so many costs associated with ladders that many growers are switching over to almonds just to stay in business,” Chandler said. “It costs me $1,400 an acre to thin our trees.”

Rod Milton, a fourth-generation stone-fruit grower, said he would welcome a ladder-less system for his peaches and nectarines grown in Reedley, Calif.

“Even with conventional rootstocks, I prune my trees so workers can take two fewer steps on the ladder come harvest time,” Milton said. “And the savings are huge, even with that. It’s important to keep farm work safe. And it’s important to keep farming viable, or else we’ll be getting all our produce from overseas.”