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Apple Grower of The Year

 

Ed Wittenbach has achieved this honor not by following but by becoming someone to follow.

Reprinted from American Fruit Grower – August 1999.

EdWhat makes an Apple Grower Of The Year?

You could ask Ed Wittenbach. But although he’s one of the more active and outspoken growers on behalf of the industry, I doubt he’ d go about tooting his own horn. So allow me to share some of the secrets of the nation’s top apple grower.

Heads To Heading Cuts

A long history of farming follows this born grower. In 1890 Wittenbach’s grandfather immigrated from Switzerland, settling the farm located next to Wittenbach’s current 80-acre, Belding, MI, homebase – a site started around 1940 by his father. With that Swiss background, you can bet it all began as a dairy farm – but there was also a small orchard.Ed2

And it was that very orchard experience that set Wittenbach on the path of industry leadership. “I didn’t like the cattle because they were too confining,” he recalls. “You were tied down seven days a week. There was never any time off.”

Some time off he did need, at least a day in 1961 when he married his wife, Linda. And from that day on the couple began expanding the fruit operation – selling off the cattle in 1967.

To fill the void, Wittenbach planted about 30 acres each of peaches and apples. However, he soon realized that the peaches weren’ t going to work as a profitable, long term investment. “Peaches are pretty demanding – you have to move them fast. In Michigan, a peach tree lives only 10 or 12 years. We have cold winters here, and we were replacing trees fast.”

Growing A Better Apple

And with that realization, he turned his focus to apples. “It seemed apples were a little more secure,” says Wittenbach. “And I thought, at that time, if you grew a better apple, you were going to get more money out of it.” He must have found a way to grow that better apple – today Wittenbach has more than 200 acres of them. The operation has cut peach production to about 4 acres, and has diversified into 400 acres of corn and soybeans while renting about 150 acres.

Wittenbach has found good success with his Galas and Jonagolds, mostly on M.9 or B.9 rootstock. “We’ve also gone heavy to Fuji.” He does admit that Fuji is definitely a challenging variety. “I guess we have trouble getting it consistently ideal. It’ s all over the board,” he says chuckling. But enjoying the challenge, he keeps on trying.

While planting newer varieties, Wittenbach still holds on to the old standby, Red Delicious. “We’re still planting a few,” he says. “It’s losing marketshare somewhat, but I think it will still have a place for a few years.”

Getting To The Dirt

The first step to growing that better apple is, of course, picking the right variety / rootstock combo, but then you’ve got to figure out just the right training method. “We’re planting around 700 trees per acre, pretty much central axe,” says Wittenbach. “We have some with a trellis, but most of our plantings are single post. And everything we have is under trickle irrigation,” he says. “We find that very essential for the smaller rootstocks. You can’t go without it because they are shallow-rooted.”

Like other growers, Wittenbach is constantly taking out and replanting. But it’ s been harder the last few years because of economic conditions. “We’ ve had to cut back on the number of acres we can replant.”

Though times are tough throughout the industry, Wittenbach finds some security in being vertically integrated. He does have a seasonal market, but primarily sells wholesale through Belding Fruit Storage and Belharvest Sales where he’ s been a member since 1965 and chairman for 15 years.

Being involved in the whole process enables Wittenbach to foresee and have more control over the effects of industry trends and challenges. “I see mergers in the supermarket chains coming rapidly within each state. I think we’ re going to see sales agencies and storage operations merging – it’s already happening some. And I think the next step is probably mergers across state lines.” Being the case, Wittenbach believes the only growers who will succeed are those that produce the absolute best product and who are involved in the industry.

“I think every grower has to be involved in organizations. If you aren’t involved, you’re walking around with blinders on. You have to know the pulse of what’s happening,” Wittenbach says. “Every meeting I go to I come back and ask,’what did I learn, what do I see as a trend, and how can I apply it to my operation?’

“By being involved in the packing house, I tend to look at varieties and how I can apply better quality. By being involved in the research station, I say,’what rootstocks do I plant, or how can I better use IPM?’ By being involved in USApple I see the national trend. On the Michigan Apple Committee I see marketing as a challenge – ‘how can we best market the Michigan apple crop for the grower to get the optimum amount of each dollar that’s spent.'”

The Future

Wittenbach does all of this because he plans to be in business for a long time. He has even positioned his son, Mike, to take over the operation someday. “He just had it in his heart,” says Wittenbach. “He loved farming he had the desire to do it.” Just knowing the farm will continue, unlike so many others in this country, is a great comfort to Wittenbach.

“That’s one of the biggest problems throughout agriculture,” he says. “I think government should do away with inheritance tax on farmland. The government doesn”t seem to have any concern about the future of where food’s coming from. Of course, they’ve always had a cheap food policy – buy it as cheap as you can get it. They’re not concerned enough about agriculture in this country.

“We have a world market now – and a crop like apples with its high labor – we’re at a complete disadvantage.” Wittenbach is a strong believer in leveling the playing field between trading partners taking into account the huge differences in labor costs and tariffs. “The farmer in America is under a lot of pressure. Agriculture is in bad shape and every other segment of society is probably the best it’s ever been. I don’t know if government realizes that or not but it’s going to turn around one of these days and they’re going to realize it.”

If he has anything to do with it, you know they will. Wittenbach personifies the type of apple grower the industry needs as the new millennium approaches. He has been instrumental in positioning the apple industry for the future and remains a leader.

More Thoughts From A Good Grower

WHAT really makes Ed Wittenbach an Apple Grower Of The Year is a strong system of beliefs on which he runs his business and conducts his industry activities. The following are a few additional thoughts he shares on …

… Pest Control. “We’re totally IPM. That’s a must. We’re trying to use the least amount of chemical that we can. We’re in an environment where we have to be very conscious of what we apply.”

… FQPA. “We’re going to see a lot more chemicals coming from manufacturers, but they’re going to do just one thing. We’re not going to have broad spectrum, which is going to cost us more money to control each individual pest.”

… National Marketing Order. “You never want to shoot anything down without looking at it. You always want to analyze it before you make a decision. We aren’t quite where we can make a decision, but I think there are possibilities. We may not like it within states but I think it’s something we may be forced to do. As companies merge, maybe we’ll have to merge.”

… Labor. Labor is another area that’s going to force change. “We’ve got to make that person be more efficient. To be more efficient, we have to have a smaller tree and that smaller tree must be better quality.”

… Management Style. “When you work with somebody you have to be at their level. I’ve been able to get the most out of them by being a part of them – being willing to work with them and show them how.”

… Family. “lt’s been a family thing – not just me. I couldn’t have been involved in all the things I’m involved in if I wouldn’t have had a wife and a son that have been totally involved with me. It has to be other people, it’s not just yourself.”

 

 

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