Depending on the amount of land devoted to the orchard, production method, and tree size, equipment costs may be held to a minimum. If the orchard is a part of an existing agricultural operation, you may already have much of the needed equipment.
Apple production will require many hours of labor, depending on the size of the orchard. Land preparation and planting will require at least two people. During the summer months, the orchard will require mowing, pesticide application, and fruit thinning. Depending on the mix of varieties and orchard size, additional labor may be required at harvest time. Although you may be able to accomplish these tasks with family members and local part-time labor, use of transient labor may be necessary.
Pennsylvania produces 400 to 500 million pounds of apples per year and ranks fifth in the nation for apple production. The majority of the production is centered in the south central part of Pennsylvania (due in large part to the topography of the land), but apples can be found commercially throughout the Commonwealth.
Depending on the apple varieties produced (commonly referred to as "cultivars"), apples may be marketed from late August through October. If regular cold storage is available, the marketing season may be extended through March. If controlled-atmosphere (CA) storage is available, the marketing season may be extended through July. Apples may be marketed wholesale or directly through a roadside market or to individuals.
Apples marketed wholesale are traditionally sold to a processor or fruit packer. Processors use apples to make apple sauce, apple juice, and a variety of other products. Fruit packers grade and pack apples for the fresh market. Fresh-market apples typically yield a higher return than processed apples. It is recommended that you explore the marketing options prior to ordering the trees from the nursery so the cultivars that best fit your marketing options may be ordered.
Apples sold through a roadside stand need to be of the highest quality. This will ensure repeat customers from year to year. Roadside marketers need a wide variety of cultivars so the marketing season is not interrupted. Roadside marketing is time consuming, but it can also be very financially rewarding. For more on marketing, refer to Agricultural Alternatives: Fruit and Vegetable Marketing for Small-scale and Part-time Growers.
The success of any orchard is directly related to planning and preparation. The ideal site for an orchard consists of rolling or sloping land to enhance air drainage during periods of spring frosts. The best site is south facing with a slope of between 4 and 8 percent because operating equipment on steeper slopes may be difficult. Sites with deep, well-drained soils are preferred because shallow, poorly drained soils cause root system problems. Consult a county soil map prior to site selection. Soil maps may be obtained at your county extension office or the Farm Service Agency.
Another consideration when choosing a site is irrigation. Regardless of the type of irrigation system used, locating the orchard close to a water source will simplify setting up the system and reduce operating expenses. For more information on overhead and drip irrigation for tree fruit production, consult Agricultural Alternatives: Irrigation for Fruit and Vegetable Production.
The land should be prepared as if planting a traditional field crop. The soil should be plowed and leveled with a disk and harrow. Starting with an even orchard floor will reduce the possibility of standing water and make fruit harvesting and transportation easier. Establishing an orchard in well-prepared soil rather than established sod will also aid in keeping the tree rows and row middles free of broadleaf weeds.
Prior to planting trees, a soil fertility test and nematode survey are recommended. These test kits may be obtained from your county extension office. The two tests may be taken at the same time, but the samples must be handled differently. Consult the instructions on both kits to ensure accurate results.
The results from the soil test provide recommendations for any soil amendments such as lime and/or fertilizer needed prior to orchard establishment. Soil amendments should be incorporated into the soil prior to planting trees. The nematode survey will determine if any treatments are needed for harmful nematodes. Left untreated, nematodes may damage the root system of the tree and can stunt or kill the tree prior to bearing fruit. This will result in uneven tree growth and delayed production.
Trees should be purchased from a reputable nursery to ensure trueness to variety and disease-free trees and because most provide a guarantee of survivability. Check for this guarantee when ordering trees. The nursery can also offer advice concerning tree and row spacing. Trees should be ordered at least one year prior to orchard establishment.
The size of the mature tree will depend on the cultivar and rootstock of the tree. The rootstock, however, is the dominant factor that controls tree size. Most commercial growers utilize either dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks because they are much easier to prune and harvest. Trees planted on dwarfing rootstocks will need to be supported by a trellis or individual posts, while those on semi-dwarf rootstocks usually do not need support. Another advantage of dwarf rootstocks is their earlier production. They usually produce fruit in the third season after planting as compared to 5 years for the larger trees. Recommended dwarf rootstocks include Malling 9 (M.9) or Budagovsky 9 (B.9). Semi-dwarf rootstocks in order of increasing size are Malling 26 (M.26), Malling 7 (M.7), or Malling Merton 111 (MM.111). A third alternative is to utilize interstem trees, which have a vigorous rootstock with a dwarfing rootstock grafted onto it, followed by the cultivar. The result is a three-part tree that is slightly smaller than a semi-dwarf tree but does not normally need support. Interstem trees are, however, more expensive than the standard two-part tree. A number of other rootstocks may be available, but they have not yet been fully tested for all cultivars grown in Pennsylvania.
The apple cultivars you choose to plant will depend largely on how you intend to market your fruit. Most apple growers who sell fruit directly to the consumer will need to choose five to six cultivars that spread their harvest out over a period of time. Growers who sell their fruit through a packing house or to a processor may only want to plant two or three different cultivars. Recommended fresh-market cultivars for Pennsylvania include Braeburn, Gala, Fuji, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, and Red Delicious with new varieties continuously being developed. The most common processing cultivars planted in Pennsylvania are Golden Delicious and York Imperial. Other cultivars that can be grown for processing include Granny Smith, Gravenstein, Idared, McIntosh, Northern Spy, and Rome Beauty. Not all of these cultivars can be grown in all areas of Pennsylvania. Consult your local county extension office to determine which cultivars are best suited for your area and if any cultivars are in higher demand for your region.
Certain cultivars of apples are resistant to apple scab. Apple scab is the most serious disease problem in producing fruit in Pennsylvania. Using scab-resistant apple cultivars can reduce the amount of fungicides that need to be applied. Some of the cultivars that are resistant to apple scab include Enterprise, Freedom, GoldRush, Liberty, and Redfree. Consult your local extension office for additional scab-resistant cultivars.
Layout and Planting
Regardless of whether you are laying out an orchard on level or sloping land, care should be taken to make the rows as evenly spaced as possible. The distance between the rows should be the same throughout the orchard. Placing stakes in the rows prior to planting will help to ensure the distance between the rows is the same throughout. This should be strived for whether planting in straight rows or on a contour. The maximum size of the tree will determine the distance between the rows and the distance between the trees in the row. The number of trees required per acre for various tree spacings can be found below.
Additional values of trees per acre can be determined by multiplying tree spacing (feet between the trees) by row spacing (feet between the rows) and dividing 43,560 (the number of square feet per acre) by the result.
When planning the orchard, early blooming cultivars that are most susceptible to frost should be placed in areas with the best air drainage. Later blooming and ripening cultivars can be placed lower on hillsides or in areas more prone to frost. If possible, orchard rows should be laid out so they are oriented running north to south to maximize exposure to sunlight. If this is not possible due to slope consideration, position the rows on the contour to facilitate safe spraying and machinery operation.
Pollenizers and Pollination
To pollinate trees in the spring, planting more than one cultivar in the orchard is necessary. Apple cultivars are self-unfruitful, which means they will not pollinate themselves and you need to plant at least two different cultivars that have overlapping bloom periods. Some cultivars have nonviable pollen, so at least three different cultivars will be required. Planting several cultivars will also ensure having marketable fruit throughout the harvest season since cultivars mature at different times.
Pollenizers can be placed as solid separate rows (but no more than two to three rows from a cultivar that is to be pollinated) or in the row with other cultivars. If the pollenizers are placed in the rows, use cultivars that look different so that the harvesters do not accidentally pick the fruit with the main cultivar. Bees traditionally move down the row when pollinating and not across rows. By placing pollinating cultivars in the row, better pollination is possible. Your nursery can recommend cultivars that will pollinize other cultivars.
A large honey bee population is essential for complete pollination and fruit set. One hive per acre is recommended for maximum fruit production. If you do not have your own honey bees, you will need to contact a beekeeper to provide hives. Care must be taken with insecticides applied at flowering because they can adversely affect pollinating insect populations, especially honey bees. Honey production may provide an additional diversification opportunity for orchardists. More information on bees and honey production can be found in Agricultural Alternatives: Beekeeping.
In the United States, anyone desiring to purchase restricted-use pesticides is required to have a pesticide applicators license. Even some materials used in organic production now require a license. In Pennsylvania, the licensing procedure is handled by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Please check with your state regarding these requirements.
Because of the complexity of apple production and the large number of pests and diseases that attack both trees and fruit, this publication cannot cover all necessary production practices and procedures. For more information on the diseases and conditions affecting apples, please consult the Pennsylvania Tree Fruit Production Guide. This valuable guide describes appropriate cultural and chemical treatments for the control of insects, diseases, and weeds.
Once the fruit has set, thinning of the fruit is required to ensure large, marketable fruit and return bloom for the following year. Thinning may be accomplished chemically or by hand. The earlier thinning is completed, the larger the fruit will be at harvest and the better the return bloom you will have in the following year. If chemical thinning is used, follow all label directions for rate and timing of the applications. If the thinning is completed by hand, begin thinning no later than mid-June. This allows for a natural phenomenon called "June drop" to occur so less time will be required for hand thinning. June drop occurs approximately 3 to 4 weeks after bloom when a small percentage of the apples that did not begin to grow will naturally drop.
Nutritional requirements of apple trees vary through out their lifetimes and are influenced by such factors as rootstock, crop load, soil type, and weather conditions. In addition to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, apple trees need adequate levels of calcium, boron, copper, and zinc to maintain the health of the tree and produce quality fruit. After planting, soil tests and leaf analyses are recommended at least once every 3 years. A leaf analysis is the most accurate way to check if applied soil amendments are being used by the tree. Leaf analysis test kits can be purchased at your county extension office.
Pruning and Training
There are many different pruning and training systems used in apple production. Your choice of rootstock and tree spacing will have a large impact on the system you use. Common training systems used in Pennsylvania include the central leader system, vertical axe, and various forms of trellising. Regardless of the system you use, you will need to prune and train the trees annually from the day you plant the trees throughout the life of the orchard. Most pruning is done during late winter before the trees leaf out in the spring. Some growers also prune trees during the summer to increase light penetration into the trees to increase fruit color.
Harvest and Storage
Whether apples are marketed fresh or processed, they are traditionally harvested by hand into large wooden or plastic bins that vary in size from 20 to 25 bushels each. Extreme care must be taken not to bruise or damage the fruit during the harvest process because this reduces quality and storability and will reduce the returns realized from the sale of the apples. Even if some family labor is used for harvest, outside labor may be necessary to harvest the crop in a timely manner. If you use hired labor, you are required to follow all laws and regulations concerning hired labor. More information concerning hired labor can be found in the Pennsylvania Tree Fruit Production Guide, Agricultural Alternatives: Starting or Diversifying an Agricultural Business, and Agricultural Alternatives: Agricultural Business Insurance.
There are two methods of storing apples. The first is regular cold storage, which involves refrigerating apples at 30 to 36°F. Water is traditionally used to increase humidity to slow loss of moisture from the apples. The second method used is controlled-atmosphere (CA) storage, which requires removing oxygen from a sealed, refrigerated room and adding of carbon dioxide to slow the maturation process. Apples stored in CA storage can be held until June or July before use.
Included in this publication are sample fresh-market apple budgets for land preparation and planting and mature production. The budgets summarize the receipts, costs, and net returns at various stages of an apple enterprise. The sample budget should help ensure that all costs and receipts are included in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Therefore, you should think of these budgets as approximations and make appropriate adjustments in the "Your Estimate" column to reflect your specific production and resource situation. More information on the use of crop budgets can be found in Agricultural Alternatives: Enterprise Budget Analysis.
You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget files for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you are done, you can print the budget using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.
You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to use these forms. If you do not have this program installed on your computer, you can download a free version.
Sample Budget Worksheet
Initial Resource Requirements
Land: 1 acre
- Land preparation: 27 hours
- Planting: 22 hours
- Production labor (scouting, thinning, pruning, spraying, and mowing harvest labor): 48 hours
- Equipment: $20,000 to $30,000
- Land preparation and planting: $3,200 to $3,600 per acre
- Production years: $2,400 to $3,000 per acre
- Tractor (45 horsepower minimum)
- Airblast orchard sprayer
- Herbicide sprayer
- Rotary mower
- Tillage equipment
- Containers (bulk bins, bushel crates, boxes)
- Pruning equipment
- Harvesting equipment
For More Information
Bradford, H., and L. Tukey (1978). Dwarfed Fruit Trees for Orchard, Garden, and Home: With Special Reference to the Control of Tree Size and Fruiting in Commercial Fruit Production. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University.
Crassweller, R. M., ed. (2004). Pennsylvania Tree Fruit Production Guide 2004-2005. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University.
Dunn, J. W., J. K. Harper, and G. L. Greaser (2000). Agricultural Alternatives: Fruit and Vegetable Marketing for Small-scale and Part-time Growers. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University.
Ferree, D. C., and I. J. Warrington, eds. (2003). Apples: Botany, Production, and Uses. Cambridge, Mass.: CABI Publishing.
Greaser, G. L., and J. K. Harper (1994). Agricultural Alternatives: Enterprise Budget Analysis. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University.
Jackson, D., et al, eds. (1999). Temperate and Subtropical Fruit Production. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: CABI Publishing.
Lamont, W. J. Jr., J. K. Harper, A. R. Jarrett, M. D. Orzolek, R. M. Crassweller, K. Demchak, and G. L. Greaser (2001). Agricultural Alternatives: Irrigation for Fruit and Vegetable Production. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University.
Salunkhe, D. K., ed., and Kadam, S. S. (1995). Handbook of Fruit Science and Technology: Production, Composition, Storage, and Processing (Food Science and Technology, No. 70). New York: Marcel Dekker.
Schlabach, D. R. (2001). Backyard Fruit Production. Revised edition. Walnut Creek, Ohio: Carlisle Press.
Sommerville, W. (1997). Pruning and Training Fruit Trees (Practical Horticulture). Woburn, Mass.: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Teskey, R. J. E. (1978). Tree Fruit Production. 3rd ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Many states have horticultural societies or fruit growers associations. Many of these may be found through the following sources:
American Society for Horticulture Science
7931 East Boulevard Drive
Alexandria, VA 22308
North American Fruit Explorers
1716 Apples Road
Chapin, IL 62628
State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania
697 Mountain Road
Orrtanna, PA 17353
- University of Kentucky - Total Quality Assurance: Apple Production: Best Management Practices
- ATTRA - Apples: Organic Production Guide
- Ohio State University - Disease Management Guidelines for Organic Apple Production in Ohio
- Penn State Extension - Fruit Production for the Home Gardener
- Penn State Extension - Pennsylvania Tree Fruit Production Guide
- The Virtual Orchard (discussion group and news for fruit growers)
- University of Vermont Apple Orchard
- Virginia Tech - Virginia Apple Page
Prepared by Robert M. Crassweller, professor of horticulture; Lynn F. Kime, extension associate in agricultural economics; and Jayson K. Harper, professor of agricultural economics.
This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service.
This publication is available in alternative media on request.