Alternative Fruit Crops
|Introduction||II. Some Risk, Still Promising||III. Insufficiently Tested, With Potential|
To visit the Research Station and sample the different fruit kinds during the season, join the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation and participate in their Field Day and Harvest events. The funds raised by membership fees and contributions directly support our fruit research.
Many agricultural commodities have fallen on difficult economic times in western Washington, as in other farming areas. Prices received for crops in some cases have been below the cost of production. Traditional crops face severe competition in world markets from foreign producers where labor and land costs are much lower. In addition, urban encroachment continues to increase the pressure to divert cropland to non-agricultural purposes. To retain a viable agricultural support system in any given area, farming must remain profitable. Therefore, growers are searching for crop alternatives with higher potential profit in the commodity itself, value-added products, or both.
Over the past 20 years the Fruit Horticulture program at the WSU Research & Extension Center, located in the Skagit Valley of western Washington, has tested a number of alternative crops. The cool maritime climate is typical of many similar coastal areas in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. In these conditions, disease susceptibility is an important element in evaluating potential crops. The ability to produce high quality fruits that mature well in the relatively lower range of heat units is also a key factor.
Many of the fruit crops were initially tested for suitability to the home grower. However, various fruit kinds and varieties have shown considerable promise as alternative crops for commercial production because of their horticultural adaptability to our area. Many of these crops may best fit a specialty niche market, yet there are a few that show potential for larger-scale operations. The categories of crops discussed below are not all-inclusive and more varieties of each kind of fruit can be found in the Fruit Horticulture annual harvest reports, but the following are among those we see as promising and at least worthy of trial.
In rating the likely potential of these different crops, consideration has been given to cultural factors such as ease of growing, disease resistance and in some cases, harvest methods (hand, mechanical, multi-picks etc.) Market accessibility and public awareness/acceptance are not primary factors but are given consideration. Some crops already have a market developed in other areas of the country, while others are not as familiar and may require more creative marketing efforts. Some crops will be primarily used in a processed form, such as juice products, and are dependent to varying degrees on access to a processing system. The main criteria are horticultural adaptability and market potential for each crop. In each case, growers need to be entrepreneurial, particularly if considering some of the more risky potential crops. Ratings of a given crop may change from year to year as information develops. The following categories have been adopted:
Very Promising (1)(*)
This category includes crops well adapted to the region, with few cultural problems, and general customer familiarity. Niche marketing can expand the grower’s profitability in some cases. Within this category the (*) indicates the best overall prospects.
Some Risk, Still Promising (2)
This describes crops that are adapted locally and appear to grow well here but the crop is less familiar to the public. Special conditions for harvest, market etc. or more effort at customer acceptance may be needed. However, a special niche may provide a unique profitable opportunity.
Insufficiently Tested, With Potential (3)
This category includes fruit kinds and varieties that look promising in horticultural terms. Planting these will involve higher risk, but self testing of crops in this category is recommended.
European pears (Pyrus communis) have few cultural problems and can be very productive. Growing russet pears could prove to be one of the most promising alternative crops, with high value potential. In western Washington the climate conditions contribute to higher levels of skin russeting, so the pear varieties with best commercial potential here are the ones in which russet is a desired characteristic. These can be grown more successfully here than almost anywhere. This offers one of the best potential opportunities for large wholesale markets, both for the older varieties and the new introductions. Best returns for the grower, however, would also include value-added components such as packing and marketing.
Bosc is a variety with a premium price for 100% russet fruit. All strains of Bosc grown here fit into a premium grade, and Bosc trees have proven to be productive. Taylor’s Gold Comice is a new russeted sport of Comice that New Zealand is currently marketing here in the opposite season, so it is already a known commodity. Standard Comicehas done well here for years, and our first harvest of Taylor’s Gold looked premium. Other promising pears include the productive variety Conference, which is #1 in Europe, particularly Holland, and does very well here. This pear isn’t 100% russet but it is attractive and very flavorful. Fireblight has not been a problem in our area, because of the cool weather we have during bloom.
European pears are picked when they are mature but not "eating ripe." So-called "summer pears" such as Bartlett can be stored for a limited period but decline rapidly after about 6 weeks in common cold storage. "Winter pears" are those like Taylor’s Gold Comice, Bosc and Conference that need a period of cold storage of from 3 to 6 weeks to optimize the ripening process. After that they can be taken out and ripening completed at room temperature.
Some general information on pears.
More information from the Pear Bureau Northwest.
There are several reasons for regarding wine grape production as one of the most promising of the alternative crop choices for western Washington. The climate range in this area closely resembles that of some of the premier wine growing regions of France and Germany. The mild winters eliminate most worries about frost damage, and the cool moist spring and early summer temperatures provide a healthy low stress atmosphere for optimum vine growth.
Testing wine grapes in western Washington goes back to the mid 1970’s. Several varietal recommendations come from that time and are detailed in the bulletin EB0775 Growing Grapes for Wine and Table in the Puget Sound Region. Most of the wines currently produced are whites and are of high quality. At the present there are several commercial cottage wineries in the Puget Sound. They have established an appellation, The Puget Sound Wine Growers.
This appellation group asked WSU – Mount Vernon to set up a test for more red varieties, and plots were established in 2000 at two sites, and in 2002 the first grapes were harvested for wine. A number of different varieties and rootstocks are included at each location. One site is located at the Mount Vernon research station, in the Skagit Valley flood plain, and the second site is in the Nooksack River valley near Everson in Whatcom County. The station site has an average of about 1600 heat units annually, where the Whatcom site has about 2100, so a comparison of variety performance on the different sites should give growers a better idea of the varieties suitable to their specific conditions.
The months of July to October are relatively dry and warm enough to ripen fruit while still cool enough to retain fruit esters that develop the full aroma and fruitiness in the finished product. The result is wines with more intense fruitiness yet a light refreshing body that is of rare quality.
There are several mesoclimates in western Washington, so choice of vineyard site is important. New sites located in the upriver valleys of the Cascade foothills and in certain warmer areas of the Puget Sound islands offer great potential. Many of the existing wineries and vinyards are located in these areas. If you are interested in growing wine grapes commercially contact Tom Bronkema.
Annual Report on the wine grape project at Mount Vernon.
Cornell University’s viticulture project has a very informative web site. For growers considering Pinot Noir clones, their bulletin on Pinot Noir trials is full of useful data.
The Vitis International Variety Catalogue is a source list for many wine grape varieties.
Anthony Hawkins’ Super Gigantic Y2K Wine Grape Glossary contains a huge repository of information on varieties and winemaking.
Historically there have been successful commercial plum orchards in a number of Puget Sound locations, mostly specializing in "prune plums" of the Italian type. This demonstrates that European type plums especially are well adapted to this area, in terms of orchard viability and productivity. The economic and marketing aspect, however, now needs to focus primarily on high- end, quality dessert type fruit for the fresh market rather than drying or processing, with effort given to developing access to specialized consumer niche markets.
Over the last 9 years there has been a lot of emphasis put on testing improved varieties of stone fruit. We have evaluated a selection of new plums that have shown promise, with good flavor, appearance, and reliable productivity. Several new varieties will be fruiting in the next few years, and more will be added to the list of marketable plums. Our goal is to have quality varieties covering a harvest range from late July to mid September. These fruits can possibly be marketed in small paper baskets at supermarkets. Some promising varieties that might fill that range are shown in Table 1, below.
Table 1. Plum harvest dates (average 1996–2000)
|Richards’ Early Italian||x||xx||xx|
More information on plums.
Since the introduction of dwarfing rootstocks for cherries (such as Gisela 5), production is higher per unit area. Just as important, cultural management is easier. The smaller tree size allows easier netting for control of bird damage and also the use of row cover materials to protect fruit from rain. Smaller trees also mean greater convenience in pruning and picking, and better penetration of necessary sprays. Cherries as a tree fruit crop pose greater cultural challenges in our region than many other fruit crops. However, with good variety selection to take advantage of high market price periods, it could be quite promising.
In selecting suitable varieties, self fruitful, late ripening cherry varieties Lapins and Sweetheart lead the list. They ripen at the end of July, when prices for cherries historically have gone up. Lapins in particular has been very productive and shows a lot of promise in our area. Several other varieties also do well and newer ones are coming along. Our cooler climate ripens cherries later naturally, at a time when prices for fresh cherries go up as the eastern Washington season winds down. This is also a time when our weather is driest.
More information on cherries.
Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia)are actually pears but are sometimes called "apple pears" due to their commonly round shape and crisp, crunchy flesh. Like apples, they are harvested when they are ready to eat. Some late varieties, for example Atago, store well. Fruits must be handled carefully and often are packed in the field. The stiff stems are cut short to prevent damage to fruit in packing. Promising varieties in our area include: Hamese, Kosui, Shinseiki, Chojuro, Mishirasu, and Atago. An attractive smaller size pack may make these pears most adaptable to special high-end markets.
Some general information on Asian pears.
Growing apples commercially in western Washington has been feasible for the last 20 years. However, the whole apple industry is struggling to remain economically viable, particularly with respect to the traditional market varieties. To remain competitive, value added components such as packing and marketing will be necessary. Varieties that have some larger wholesale market potential are Jonagold, Honeycrisp and Braeburn. (For a complete discussion of commercial apple culture in this area, see EB 1804 Growing Jonagold in Western WA.)
In addition, Gravenstein could continue to increase in profitability in our area because of its familiarity in both local and national markets. Gravenstein does best in a cooler climate. McIntosh strains and certain Mac types such as Jonamac may satisfy a specific demand. Finally, the following list indicates several apple types that do well in our area and have been in high demand at fruit shows but will probably have limited niche and direct markets:
Cox’s Orange Pippin (Queen’s Cox)
Karmijn de Sonnaville
Empire (Thome, Royal)
Hardy kiwis show great promise horticulturally as an alternative crop. This crop rates as a (2) mainly because of its unfamiliarity in the marketplace. Kiwifruit (Actinidia spp.) are sometimes thought of as semi-tropical but they thrive very well in the milder climate areas of western Washington. At Mount Vernon we have tested various kiwis for about 18 years. The most promising for our area have been the smooth-skinned varieties known as hardy kiwis (A. arguta) which are hardy to –25° F. Anna (Ananasnaya) has been the most promising variety but several new ones are on trial including some with a reddish skin color. Kiwis need a male plant for pollination spaced between every 8 female plants.
?Male flower (left) has a conspicuous tuft of pollen anthers, while the female (right) shows the marble-shaped ovary that will develop into the fruit.
The fruit should be picked while hard (soluble solids should be around 8%) and put in cold storage. They can be ripened either in storage on on the market shelf. Harvest of Anna has been in early September. The vines are productive and to this point have had no observable pest problems, which indicates great potential for organic production. The fruits are oval, about the size of a cherry, with smooth brownish green skin and delightfully tasty green flesh. Some say the flavor is better than that of the standard fuzzy kiwis. The fruit can be popped in your mouth and eaten skin and all like a grape.
More information on kiwifruit and the different types of actinidia.
Report from Purdue University symposium on alternate crops.
USDA-Oregon paper on hardy kiwifruit.
The outlook for growing peaches in western Washington has improved, but varietal productivity is still inconsistent. However, the selection of newer peach varieties looks promising compared with the standard varieties of a few years ago. Many new cultivars have been obtained in the past couple of years and the prospects are optimistic for expanding the peach recommendations in future. Redhaven still is one of the most reliably productive varieties. Harbelle and Frost are also consistently productive, but can have a lot of split-pit fruit in some years. Mature trees of Frost are resistant to peach leaf curl, but the young trees need protection for the first few years. Harrow Diamond is the earliest ripening variety with consistent quality and productivity. Older varieties such as Velvet and Harken are still worthy of trial but have shown variable productivity from year to year. Redstar and Starfire are two new varieties that appear to be consistently productive, with good quality, very colorful and attractive fruit, but they need further testing at this point.
Growing peaches on a larger scale may be enhanced with some kind of frost protection during bloom, i.e. wind machines, etc. Trying at least a few trees for a future U-pick operation may be profitable if it is well set up.
More information on peaches.
Some blackberry varieties have been planted at Mount Vernon since 1996, and a test plot of the newer blackberry cultivars was established this year. We will do a preliminary evaluation this coming year and have a full crop the year following. The crop potential for blackberries is promising, and the addition of the new varieties should add even more to the options available. In the past Chester, Marion, and Siskiyou have done well. Chester is very productive but is on the late side. Many new thornless variety introductions are entering the picture, and a number of them appear to have very good commercial potential. Raspberry equipment and processing facilities could be adapted for a processing market. Fresh market sales will have to be developed by the grower(s).
More information on blackberries and brambles.
The production of hard (fermented) cider is a specialty market similar to that for micro-breweries. At Mount Vernon a number of hard cider varietal apples have been tested. Varieties such as Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Vilberie, Dabinett, Michelin, Cow Jersey, Brown Snout, and Foxwhelp have fruit that is often very bitter or sharp, undesirable as fresh fruit but mixed with other varieties makes a complex, flavorful hard cider. Opportunities exist to grow these varieties for both commercial cider makers and hobbyists. There is a certain "chicken or the egg" aspect involved, since the producers of hard cider need specific apple varieties suited only to that purpose. However, growers are reluctant to plant trees of varieties whose only use is for hard cider, unless a ready market is available.
Bulmer’s of Hereford, the leading English cider company with branches worldwide, has an interesting commercial site.
The largest commercial use of currants is for juice production. A trial plot including 15 different varieties of black, red and white currants were planted at Mount Vernon in 1996. There are some varieties from Scotland that show promise, and so far a few of the black ones are resistant to mildew and the currant sawfly. As of yet, yield data have not been compiled due to lack of funding, but several show good productivity and disease resistance, and have a plant growth habit that is acceptable for possible mechanical harvesting. Among those now on trial are Ben Alder, Ben Lomond, Ben Nevis, Ben Sarek, Ben Tirran, Magnus, Minn 69, Rovada, Titania, and Tsema.
Berry processing plants and machinery are in existence, and this technology may be adapted readily to currant culture and processing.
Mount Vernon – Currant Report 2001
More information on currants and gooseberries.
As nursery and landscape plants, new disease resistant ornamental crabapples have good potential both for retail sales to homeowners and for landscape markets (parks, street trees, cityscape etc.) We have tested ornamental crabs for the past 18 years. The new generation now available, attractive and highly disease resistant, makes crabapples a valuable part of the nursery trade. The trees are not only disease resistant but also come in a wide range of tree shapes and flower colors. Unique features such as cut-leaf foliage, bronze or purple foliage, weeping habit, or narrowly columnar habit make specific varieties very suitable to special purposes. Those with upright habit, for example, are well adapted for use as street trees. Many of these trees are described in bulletin EB 1809 Crabapples for Western Washington Landscapes.
Aronia (A. melanocarpa) is a native North American plant which was popularized as a crop and is commonly planted in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where cultivars were developed for fruit production and the fruit was designated as a "healing plant." The fruit is valued for its juice which is very high in anthocyanins, blends well with other fruit juices and is reputed as a source of "phenols, leucoanthocyanins, catachines, flavonoles, and flavones" that are considered to be bioactive in humans, according to Chad Finn in his paper on Temperate Berry Crops.
We have had specimen plants of aronia for 4 years. The plant does well but so far productivity has been only moderate. It is a crop that will have to be protected from birds because they devoured the berries even before harvest. Other than that, we have observed no major pest problems thus far. It has potential for mechanical harvest but any prospective grower must line up a market before planting extensively. Productive clones will need to be selected, as some available plants were chosen as ornamentals, not for high yield potential. At this point proceed with care in choosing to plant.
Mount Vernon – Aronia Report 2001
More on Aronia.
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a very thorny shrub or small tree native to eastern Europe and Asia. It has nitrogen fixing properties and is very tolerant of drought and poor soils, so has been introduced as a shelter belt plant in some of the plains States and Canada. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the berries are commonly harvested for juice, which has nutritious and other healthful properties. Medicinal uses of extracted plant oils are also well documented in Europe and Asia.
Plants on trial at Mount Vernon have fruited very successfully for the past 3 years, and appear quite well adapted horticulturally. The plants are very productive, setting many small orange fruits with a citrus like flavor. The juice is high in vitamin C. We have not had any problems with pests thus far and this shows great potential for organic growing. The commercial potential of this plant is being pursued by the British Columbia Sea Buckthorn Growers’ Association, in the Okanagan Valley. Information on the Association and on sea buckthorn is available from Okanagan Sea Buckthorn.
More information in a paper on the fruit potential of sea buckthorn by Thomas S.C. Li from the Summerland, B.C. fruit research station.
Currently at the Mount Vernon research station, specimen plants from a number of different species and varieties are being tested , with little information as of yet on their future potential. They include figs, quinces, seedless grapes, doughnut (Peen Tao) peaches, paw paws (Asimina triloba), elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), honeyberry (Lonicera kamchatika), mountain ash and other Sorbus species, cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and azerole (Crataegus azarolus).
Kim Hummer has done a survey of new and alternative fruit crops in Oregon Tree Fruits and Nuts.
Several fruit kinds and varieties are less pest prone than standard varieties and thus have more potential for organic production. Some strong candidates include: hardy kiwis, aronia, and sea buckthorn. Experience with some of these crops in our area is limited but at this point they appear to have few or no disease problems. There are also certain varieties of apple and pear that are scab immune and would be more friendly for organic production than some of the standard varieties. A bit more difficult would be plums, peaches, wine grapes, hard cider apples, currants, blackberries, and Asian pears.
Scab-immune apple varieties with market potential here include (in ripening order): Pristine, Prima, Liberty and Enterprise. Gold Rush ripens very late in most areas but could do well on a warm site. Other varieties that are not immune but show very good resistance most years are Akane, Spartan, Bramley’s Seedling and the late russet variety Ashmead’s Kernel.
Scab resistant or immune pear varieties are also a good prospect for organic production. There is considerable research being done on improved disease resistance in pears, with particular emphasis on fire blight, which is not a problem in cool spring climate areas like ours. Some pear selections from the Appalachian Research Station, West Virginia, may be promising introductions. For the present, growers should avoid planting highly susceptible varieties like Bartlett, Flemish Beauty and D’Anjou. Asian pears are more susceptible to (I)Pseudomonas infection than European pears.