In a way, a tree fruit farmer is something like the headmaster of his own private school. The orchard is his classroom and the apples or pears growing on the trees are the students. And just like in schools with human students, teaching methods change and teachers have to be ready to change too. In Oregon's Hood River Valley, home to one of the best prep schools for pears and apples in the country, growers are adopting a new approach to tree fruit production that they hope will keep their graduates at the top of the class.
It's called Integrated Fruit Production, or IFP for short, and it consists of a collection of old and new orchard management methods, combined under a production philosophy that emphasizes both ecological and economic objectives.
"The IFP program in the Hood River Valley is not a restrictive set of guidelines or set of dos and don'ts," said Franz Niederholzer, Oregon State University Extension Service agriculture agent in Hood River County. "It's a holistic management concept that recognizes a fruit tree orchard as an agro-ecosystem."
Hood River County, which includes the Hood River Valley, annually produces 60 percent of the state's multi-million dollar Bartlett and winter pear crop. The county also accounts for nearly half of the state's apple crop which annually averages a farm-gate value in the range of $15 to $25 million.
An IFP program is built on the idea that all activities in the orchard, including pest and disease control, weed management, fertilization and irrigation are interrelated. Traditionally, growers have managed these activities separately. The IFP concept calls for the grower to manage them all together with the ultimate objectives of reducing chemical use while maximizing production of quality fruit.
Niederholzer emphasized that not all IFP programs are the same, but vary from region to region. He added that IFP programs are designed to be flexible and responsive to the changing conditions that characterize all agricultural production systems.
Agricultural producers in Europe adopted IFP programs in the 1980s in response to strong consumer food safety concerns about tree fruits and other commodities. Today, a high percentage of growers in several western European countries operate within the guidelines of carefully monitored IFP programs.
The IFP concept came west in the early 1990s when tree fruit growers in the eastern and midwestern United States began developing their own programs.
The stated goal of the Hood River Valley IFP program is "the economical production of high quality pear and apple fruit which gives priority to ecologically sound growing practices, where pesticides, fertilizers, and water are used judiciously to minimize impacts on the environment and human health, and to sustain the viability of the agro-ecosystem."
According to Felix Tomlinson, Hood River Valley pear and apple grower, the adoption of an IFP program by pear and apple growers in the Hood River Valley is a proactive move made in response to the growers' desire to improve orchard management efficiency and in recognition of increasing consumer sensitivity to food safety issues.
Tomlinson, a Hood River grower for 25 years, chairs the IFP committee of the Hood River Valley Shipper/Grower Association.
"We developed an IFP program for our growers because as a group we knew we were going to have to address environmental questions about pear and apple production," said Tomlinson. "Adopting an IFP program seemed the best approach because IFP is based on efficient farming practices and sound economic planning. You can't make wholesale changes in how you farm without paying attention to the costs of those changes."
"We knew we were going to have to address environmental questions about pear and apple production.
Helmut Riedl, an entomologist at OSU's Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River, took the first step in mounting an IFP program in the Hood River Valley when he began a three-year IFP research and demonstration project in 1993.
"I had just returned to Hood River from a one-year sabbatical leave in Europe where I observed tree fruit production in northern Italy," Riedl said. "The Italian growers were operating under a very effective IFP program and I felt strongly that a similar type of program would be beneficial to Hood River growers."
With the cooperation of the Hood River Valley growers, local county Extension Service agents and his fellow agricultural researchers at the Mid-Columbia Center, Riedl proposed a research project that combined IFP research and demonstration activities with grower education programs. Another part of the project evaluated the short- and long-term costs and benefits of integrated versus conventional fruit production.
"The idea was to include the growers from the start and make it their program as much as possible," said Riedl. "It doesn't matter how successful a research program is if no one uses the information after the program ends.
"We were also careful to examine the bottom line, or the costs of using IFP practices," Riedl added. "Growers have to be able to make a profit or they can't farm."
The project called for the establishment of four demonstration areas to be set up within existing grower orchards. A broad variety of IFP practices, including fertilization, irrigation monitoring, ground cover management, pest and disease monitoring and control, and weather monitoring for pest and disease forecasting and irrigation scheduling, were conducted in the demonstration areas. All applications and their observed effects were closely recorded and economic data gathered on pear yields and quality.
Throughout the three years of the project, growers were invited to extensive field tours in the demonstration areas. Numerous IFP workshops were held and IFP publications and newsletters distributed.
The project ended in 1996 and was successful, Riedl said, in showing the growers that an IFP program offered many benefits.
However, the growers didn't wait until 1996 to start establishing an IFP program of their own.
"The Hood River Grower/Shipper Association, which includes nearly all the 320 growers in the valley, established an IFP committee in 1994," said Tomlinson. "We saw the advantages of IFP, but getting everyone to agree on what our IFP guidelines should be was quite a challenge."
Eventually, growers were able to agree on a set of IFP guidelines, which are reviewed and revised annually.
The current set of guidelines includes specific recommendations for orchard soil management and tree nutrition; maintenance of orchard alleyways and weed-free strips; irrigation; tree training and management; fruit thinning management; integrated plant protection, which calls for use of biological, cultural, genetic and biotechnical methods of pest, disease and weed control where possible; efficient and safe spray application methods, and harvest and storage practices and methods.
In addition to its on-farm demonstration and education features, the Hood River Valley IFP program has also put in place a district-wide computerized pesticide-use recording system to track yearly changes in chemical use.
IFP proponents believe that fruit produced under the program's comprehensive guidelines will be a high quality product, and eventually, a more marketable one.
According to Clark Seavert, Extension economist in the Hood River County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service, the marketing potential of IFP pears and apples will be developed over the next several years.
"If IFP fruit can become consistently established in the marketplace and consumers can be educated that IFP means growers are trying harder to grow fruit in environmentally friendly ways, then fruit produced under IFP guidelines may be successful in carving out its own marketing niche," said Seavert. "Pear production is expected to increase significantly over the next few years and when there is a lot of fruit on the market, prices will drop. In this situation IFP could make a marketing difference to the grower if IFP fruit earns some consumer preference in the marketplace."
Regardless of IFP's eventual marketing potential, for Niederholzer the program's best feature from an educational perspective is that it defines tree fruit production as a system of related functions rather than a collection of separate operations.
IFP is a wonderful tool for reminding growers that everything is connected, for combining all the components of fruit production under one umbrella," said Niederholzer. "The program has also helped Extension educators and agricultural researchers focus educational programs and research projects on the whole orchard.
"Too often in the past we have treated production problems independently of each other," said Niederholzer. "For example, if insect pests were a problem we would look for ways to eradicate them rather than trying to find ways to limit insect pest populations with irrigation management, or tree fertilization and pruning strategies. IFP has helped everyone involved with tree fruit production take a few steps back and begin looking at the orchard in holistic way."
"Right now the IFP program's greatest value is that it has increased grower awareness of how everything that goes on in the orchard is connected," he said. "With that awareness come opportunities to re-evaluate how you do things and make changes where needed. Down the road the IFP program here hopefully will make consumers aware that Hood River Valley growers are working harder to produce a quality product."
For Tomlinson, IFP makes sense because it fits with the direction the tree fruit industry is headed.
"Our IFP program is in tune with the times," said Tomlinson. "And even more importantly, it's grower driven. That's the only kind of support that will make it work."