(The illustration above shows offshoots and trellis wires during the second stage of growth using the Upright Fruiting Offshoots cherry tree training method. — Herb Leonhard illustration)
“You get tremendously good light distribution and uniformity with this very flat wall of fruit trained along the wire,” Lang said.
That’s key. Through research, Lang has nailed down just the right amount of leaf coverage per fruit (200-250 square centimetres) to ensure the grower is getting an optimal cherry; one that is 10-12 grams in weight and 28 millimetres in diameter. And when there’s a flat wall of fruit, it means leaves aren’t shading each other and wasting light.
It also makes pruning, spraying, managing crop load and harvesting much easier, which is really the entire point behind what is “just a simple concept,” as Lang puts it.
He conceived the tree-training method 20 years ago, based off of a long-used version for grape vines: vertical shoot positioning.
But it’s taken some time to finally catch on for other fruits. The UFO method is now “making its way around the world little by little,” says Lang, though under different names. (It’s also used for peaches, apricots and plumbs.)
Asked if he believes the method will become an agricultural mainstay, he said, “Oh, for certain.”
“Nobody has tried to grow a cherry like a grape before; that was a crazy idea,” he said of early resistance to the method.
Holding farmers back, says Lang, is “getting over the inertia” of the upfront cost. But he’s adamant there’s long-term payoff in the reduction of labour and controllable quality yields.
With this method, Sgambelluri says he won’t have to battle with sticking a ladder into trees to search for cherries come harvesting time, or deal with punctured high tunnel roofs from trees growing too high.
“It’s a completely different mindset from what we’ve been doing for the last 60 years of growing cherries,” he said. “Harvesting becomes easier and everything becomes reachable from the ground.”
For his part, Lang says “picking the tree is 40 per cent more efficient.” In his research, people were timed while picking a kilo of fruit from different types of trees. The UFO method was “absolutely more efficient,” Lang said.
Sgambelluri also has his eyes on future tech for harvesting, which this system would help incorporate, should the technology ever arrive.
While robots have been picking apples and strawberries for at least a couple of years in North America, Lang is cautious about robots for sweet cherries.
He mentioned existing technology for automated pruning and thinning, but said, “The last real hard part to crack is robotic picking.”
It takes a computer with numerous cameras focusing on one thing to get a 3D picture, sampling every second and relaying data to a processor to determine what’s a cherry, what’s not, and which ones are ripe for the picking. And even then, there’s the issue of the pressure exerted by a robotic hand grasping the tender orbs.
In humans versus robots, we still have the literal upper hand — for now.
Sgambelluri’s next step is adding more horizontal wires to accommodate the ongoing offshoot growth. Next year, they’ll start to fruit, and if everything works out, the year after the trees should be in full production.
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