Harbes farm tries apples with a twist

Ed Harbes IV explains how tree limbs, called feathers, are trained to grow horizontally on the trellis at Harbes Farm and Orchard in Riverhead. He has planted 4,000 apple trees on five acres; varieties include Cameo, Shizuka, Jonagold, Aztec Rose, Fugi and Golden Delicious.

Vineyard owners aren’t the only North Fork farmers using trellises to grow their fruit. At Harbes Farm in Riverhead, the family is trellising its most recent crop addition, and grapes have nothing to do with it.

Apples are the new addition for the Harbes family. Even though the farm’s trees are newly planted, the new trellis system promises more than 100 bushels of u-pick apples per acre by next year, complementing the farm’s already popular pumpkin patch and corn maze.

“What I found particularly attractive about using a trellis system to grow apples is that it keeps the apples within the grasp of someone looking to pick with their hands,” said owner Ed Harbes IV. “The bulk of the apples will be within hand’s reach, especially if you have small kids that can’t reach up that high.”

Over the coming year, Mr. Harbes will use the trellis system to orient each of the trees’ branches downward. That signals an important growth hormone to begin yielding fruit as it trains the branches to stay low. Ultimately, Mr. Harbes said, the final product will look something like a “Christmas tree” in appearance, making the system both practical and attractive — even for non-farmers.

“We really did it for aesthetic reasons,” said Nancy Gilbert, who planted a border of trellised trees around her yard in Jamesport. “It looks pretty. It’s just a great look, and it’s an easy way to grow apples.”

At the Harbes Farm, the trellis system is a network of wires and posts supporting 4,000 trees that line the five-acre property. The posts, sunk three feet into the ground to withstand heavy wind and rain, are connected by a wired framework roughly 11 feet high. The rows of trees are 14 feet apart to allow room for autumn u-pickers and include a wide variety of apples, including Golden Delicious and Shizuka. If all goes well, the trees will reach optimal fruit production — over 1,000 bushels per acre — within five years, much sooner than an apple tree left to grow without trellising.

“One of the primary advantages of this system is that you don’t have to wait five to seven years just to get the initial fruit from a standalone tree,” Mr. Harbes said. “Instead of waiting several years for the tree to establish itself and grow to a significant size, the tree will produce fruit right away. Just bumping up that production timeline is a key advantage.”

Without a trellis, Mr. Harbes said, a young apple tree is too weak to support the weight of its fruit once it does begin to produce heavily, let alone the force of strong winds and rain. Compared to a traditional, “standalone” system, a trellised apple orchard yields almost immediate results without the complications of weak or dying branches. In his opinion, it’s a win-win situation.

“If you have a standalone tree, it has to be large enough and strong enough to support its own weight, particularly during storms and hurricanes,” he said. “With this system, you can focus on getting as many apples as possible and rely upon the trellis to keep the trees from falling over.”

Although the system has been around since the mid-1970s, most apple growers still prefer the traditional standalone methods. Many, Mr. Harbes said, find the high-density trees and specialized equipment unappealing, choosing instead to wait years and grow their fruit more casually. Others, he said, simply find the switch impractical. Why go through all the bother of switching to a new system when the old system has worked just fine for decades?

“Old, traditional apple growers are kind of set in their ways,” he said. “Since I’m starting with a clean slate, I don’t have all the baggage of preconceived notions in terms of apple production.”

In the end, Mr. Harbes said he hopes that the new orchard will be a fun place for families to come and visit. Opening it to the public, he said, will help bridge some of the gap between farmer and consumer that often hides the intricacies of farm life.

“It’s just a nice way to bring a lot of different farm activities under one roof,” he said. “And that’s the advantage of having a u-pick farm. The farmers get to bridge the gap between us and the public.”

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