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Lessons From Western Apple Growers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


The average farmer is not a good business man. That is a harsh statement, but we may as well face it and make the most of it. If we ever take a look at our competitors it is to become jealous of their successes or to gloat over their failures, rather than to study their methods so as to adopt what brings success or avoid the plans which lead to defeat.

It is reported that within two years the Pacific Coast will have over 15,000,000 bearing apple trees. That is interesting to the eastern grower, because he ought to plan his work so as to meet that competition. My home town of Fennville, in western Michigan, is known to very few of my readers—is hardly on the map, so far as you are concerned—and still it ships about as many apples to cold storage every year as does the world-wide known Hood River valley. Western New York and southern Pennsylvania also have points that excel Hood River in the quantity of apples grown and shipped, but it is in the quantity and natural quality that we lead, while it is the finish and excellence of pack that has put the Pacific coast points on the map in big red letters.

We all have a general knowledge of western conditions, but it was this summer, while visiting that section, that I had an opportunity to study their problems by seeing for myself and by talking with the growers. The western land agents know just how to use the brightest tints of printers ink when describing their wonderful land bargains and their use of superlatives is sufficient to put the advance agent of the modern circus completely in the background.

Among the many horticultural leaders that I met and conversed with was the head of one of the large fruit exchanges, who seemed to take as much interest in eastern fruit progress as in what was being done in his own section. He was keeping a sharp eye on what his competitors were trying to do and on the probable effect it would have on their business. As I told him of the reviving of interest in horticulture in the east, the rejuvenating of old apple orchards, etc., I said, "What are you going to do with these high-priced orchards when we get our methods improved and our organizations for fine packing completed in the east?" What do you suppose his answer was? "You will never do it!" He practically told me and, through me, he tells you that the Pacific coast grower relies on the lack of business of the eastern grower —upon his laziness, his shiftlessness, his dishonesty, if you please. Was he right? I put it up to you. Did he tell the truth or is it a libel upon the manhood and womanhood of our eastern growers? Your answer must come in the work that you do in the future. Acts speak louder than words and if we continue to practice the slack methods of the past, that man told the truth and we will deserve our fate. But I don't believe him. I have faith in the latent honesty and business ability of our eastern growers.

The western growers went there mostly from the east and crossing the Rocky Mountains did not especially work a miracle in honesty or business ability. But their disadvantage of high priced lands and their distance from market have worked out to their advantage. My home town is only a few hours from Chicago-the largest distributing market in this country—and, since we can ship anything to Chicago and get something for it, most of us are raising anything, shipping everything and are getting a little of nothing and then, to cap the climax, are trying to lay the blame on everyone except the right party—ourselves.

Next to the disadvantage of distance from market, the other disadvantage that works out to their advantage is the inflated price of land. This compels the western grower to practice intensive cultivation, as compared with our extensive cultivation. An Illinois farmer sold his 110 acre farm and invested the entire price in 10 acres of apple and pear orchard in Oregon and on that orchard he was hiring as much help and using almost as many horses as he formerly used on his big farm in Illinois. Think of it ! No wonder that he produced the very finest fruit that sold at the highest price. If you and I would let about three-fourths of our land lie in grass or simply rest and then on the balance of the land devote all of our usual energy and brains, we might not produce quite as many bushels of fruit, but we would have nearly as much of a much higher quality and our profits, reputation and happiness would be increased many fold.

When you stop to think that the price the western grower pays for transportation alone to my home market would be a big profit for me in my business and that I do not get it, simply proves the statement with which I started—that I am not a good business man. I wish that I could drive home to you the insult, if you have any manhood in you, that that man gave to us when he said we would not do these things. He did not say we couldn't; he did not say that we lacked natural ad-vantages, but he said we lacked nerve; that we lacked the western spirit of "get up and get." That statement rankles in my breast and it ought to in yours, God gave Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and all this grand country wonderful opportunities and if we fail, no one is to share the blame with us.

The western apple excels in what I call "finish" and in addition to freedom from insect and fungus injuries, that finish is largely due to high color. Just as long as attractivenesses to the eye is the first standard by which the buyer selects his purchases, richness of color will be an essential. While our best fruit authorities may disagree as to the possibilities of increasing color in fruit by the application of potash, phosphoric acid or other chemicals, no one can deny that the one great cause for color is sunshine—God's great gift to man. While the west may have a little more of sunshine, on account of their dry atmosphere, do we not have sunshine here in the east? The chief point of difference lies in the fact that the method of growing trees in the west is such as to make the greatest possible use of that sunshine, while we in the east are so anxious to get an immense amount of bearing wood on our trees and also crowd our trees so that they interlace, thus making our orchards appear more like a forestry proposition. Their trees are low and with open heads—vase form. In our greed we leave so much brush in our trees that a sparrow can hardly fly through them. We overwork our trees and then starve them. They restrict their trees by severe pruning and thinning of the fruit so that the trees can do their best and keep it up. In trying to discourage us the western land agent says we could not have their kind of open heads, that "The sun scald would kill our trees." Don't you believe it. The only disease we need fear in the east is "dry rot" and the most violent form of this disease is where it attacks the man rather than the tree.

While we must be more thorough in our spraying, we must practice more intelligent pruning and thinning of fruit if we want the high grade that is skimming the cream from our own markets. I know that some of my eastern horticultural friends are issuing words of caution for fear that we will prune too much, and thus "upset the balance" or do something equally unwise. Did you ever stop to consider that our "forestry" methods have been standing us on our heads so long that we have lost all thought of any "balance?" What, pray, will restore the "balance" to a starved root system, but to restrict by pruning the heavily loaded top? An overloaded and starved team are first relieved by re-moving a part of the load. Where you find one grower who has made the improbable mistake of pruning his orchard too much, I can show you thousands of growers in leading fruit sections who do not prove enough and hundreds of others who do not prove at all.

When the western grower sees an imperfect apple on his tree in the growing time, he realizes that that fruit can never grow to be any-thing but a cull and it is at once taken off to make room for other fruits. They grade their fruit on the tree and they know that it takes as much of the vitality of the tree to ripen a cull as it does to put the finish on a perfect fruit. In the east the practice is to leave all the fruits that set until harvest time, then paw them over on the packing table to find enough fairly good specimens to face out the barrel. What happens after that we blush to relate. You say it costs money to thin apples. Does it cost any more, or even as much, to pick off the extra fruits and break up the clusters in June, dropping the little culls on the ground, than to wait until harvest time and then pick the whole mess (and, by the way, that is a very good word) carry them down the ladders, pour out on the packing table, sort them and put the culls in the cider lot or in a more improper place?

Not only do we fail to grow as good fruit as we might, but we have had no system of grading and packing. Why are people not eating and cooking more apples? Have they lost their taste for apples? Why is the demand for bananas, oranges, grape fruit and western apples in-creasing while our own superior quality apples go begging a market? You know the reason. The man who buys a barrel of our apples buys them under a suspicion and pays a price accordingly. All business is and must be based on one principle confidence. The average eastern pack of fruit does not commend the respect of the consumer and the man who starts out to pack honestly and then market in the old way generally finds himself in bad company and too often suffers as did "old dog Tray."

But the Sulzer bill, which took effect last July, offers us a means of establishing a reputation and of being known as packing an honest grade, for which the consumer will eventually call and pay a good price. Let us adopt this new law and then by modern systems of distribution, through cooperative organizations, modeled after the western methods, we will enjoy increasing demands from a satisfied purchasing public, our markets will be steady, prices will be good and we will possess the confidence and respect of our customers and have that self respect that comes from a feeling of work well done.

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