With a cherry on top

Agriculture.com Staff 01/25/2007 @ 8:53am

My sister and I used to argue so loud feeding the pigs each night, our neighbors across the field would sit on their porch and be entertained. I didn't know our voices carried that far until one neighbor asked what "scooping down" meant. He heard us shouting those words a lot. (Scooping down meant you had to get in the dirt lot with the sows and fill their trough. Neither of us wanted to do that).

That was a long time ago. The sows are gone, and I've moved away from the Maryland farm. Other than that, things are about the same. Molly and I still love to argue if given half a chance. Hey, she's bossy.

Seriously, I am proud of Molly (now Brumbley) and her new venture. In the past two years she has planted almost two acres of high-density sweet cherry trees under a tunnel system. The tunnels are made by Haygrove, an English company. The concept is to take crops traditionally grown outdoors and grow them under field-scale tunnels. Farmers in the U.S. have covered strawberries, blueberries, grapes, flowers and more. The tunnels benefit any crop that is damaged by moisture and gets a premium for early production.

The tunnels have steel bracing, steel top gantry systems and high-tensile wire bracing systems. Molly is covering them with a polythene film that scatters the sunlight so it can go deeper into the plant canopy.

She invested in the high tunnels because the cherry crop is so delicate. This is the ultimate diva crop -- high value, but oh-so-sensitive. Don't touch me or I'll crack. Sweet cherries are susceptible to frosts, canker, birds and rain that cracks the ripe fruit. If the fruit is marred, customers don't want it. The protective tunnels are a cherry bodyguard, so to speak. Tunnels also reduce the pesticides needed.

Molly traveled to England to study the system and liked what she saw. It is a big investment, but she penciled it out and saw it could work. She's had lots of experience with that as a farm real estate appraiser with Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit.

The field-scale tunnels cost $0.50 to $0.75 per square foot. The investment per tree is about $15 including trees, staking, irrigation and site prep. The dwarf trees are planted at 568 per acre. This high density makes the tunnels economically feasible.

The dwarf trees produce a fruit beginning in year three. Covering the cherries allows Molly to protect the quality of the fruit, allows the fruit to remain on the tree until it is ripe, and allows picking in any weather.

It's a risky venture because cherry trees "love to die," says Molly. "The tunnels are my insurance policy for the crop."

I won't argue with that.

My sister and I used to argue so loud feeding the pigs each night, our neighbors across the field would sit on their porch and be entertained. I didn't know our voices carried that far until one neighbor asked what "scooping down" meant. He heard us shouting those words a lot. (Scooping down meant you had to get in the dirt lot with the sows and fill their trough. Neither of us wanted to do that).

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