The International Tree Fruit Association (IFTA) started as a grass roots group of Michigan growers with a drive to take tree fruit production strategies to the next level. The group prioritized the advancement of growers’ knowledge and firsthand experiences with new ways to grow tree fruits. Specifically, their focus was to learn how to grow smaller trees on dwarfing rootstocks at tighter spacings to improve orchard efficiency and profitability.

This initiative was more successful than any of the original members could have imagined at the time. The original educational events and field days attracted growers from neighboring states, Canada and eventually from across the globe. This tradition continues today.

Each winter, the IFTA holds an annual meeting, and every summer, a study tour is offered to showcase fruit producing regions during their growing seasons. These meetings have been essential to the IFTA membership, which is comprised of growers, consultants, researchers and extension agents. These events have helped keep each of these sectors on the cutting edge of tree fruit production.

Additionally, the IFTA has empowered new/young professionals by offering scholarships to support attendance to these meetings and developed events geared toward helping this group immerse into this agricultural sector.

Thanks to the generous support from the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission — a grower assessment program that aides infrastructural and professional development needs of Michigan State University’s fruit research and extension program — my extension colleagues and I had the recent opportunity to travel to the IFTA annual meeting in Rochester, New York.

This IFTA was likely one of the most informative meetings for our MSU team as New York is the second largest U.S. apple producer behind Washington, and because their climate and resulting production strategies are more similar to Michigan’s.

This year’s meeting kicked off with a session titled, “Who Moved My Trees?” a spin on Spencer Johnson’s book about staying optimistic during times of change. This session was the theme for the IFTA program that aimed to encourage the industry to keep up with science-based production and technological advancements such as new varieties and rootstocks, pruning styles, the role of nutrient management for optimizing tree health and fruit quality as well as incorporating mathematical growth models and other technologies to remove guesswork from management decisions.

Mentioned previously, the field tour is a key component that adds value to the IFTA meetings. Despite New York’s frigid temperatures, the IFTA braved the cold to visit a few of the area’s orchards which included a stop at Fowler Farms, the state’s largest apple producer that is completely vertically integrated, the first to plant high density super spindle architecture orchards, and overall keen to innovation. This family operation has maintained their success by farming high-value varieties such as Honeycrisp, SweeTango, Gala, and Evercrisp.

They are also taking orchard nutrient management to the next level by mapping their farm’s soil types and soil sampling to use variable rate fertilizing strategies that optimize the specific needs of trees in different areas of the orchard.

We also visited Wafler Farms/Nursery, leaders of developing and incorporating technology to maximize orchard production efficiency from their custom designed high-density orchard plantings to building their own harvest platform machines. This farm also focuses on the production of high-value apples including Honeycrisp, Gala, Evercrisp and Fuji. This family operation strives to continue improving all aspects of production and their enthusiasm led to the development of a custom video recording system with many uses including monitoring fruit quality, and labor and harvest efficiency.

Since the establishment of the IFTA, this group has continued to offer the highest quality educational programs to advance all sectors of the tree fruit industry. We are grateful to the MTFC for providing support to our team to attend the IFTA meeting in New York. Lastly, we encourage all Michigan tree fruit growers to consider attending future meetings — IFTA will be held in Michigan in 2020.

Emily Pochubay is a Michigan State University Extension fruit/integrated pest management educator at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.