Training in UFOs found in orchards

YAKIMA -- UFOs are being sighted in a few cherry orchards around the Northwest.

No, it's not extraterrestrials visiting, but a new training system in use by a handful of growers in Washington and Oregon.

The acronym stands for upright fruiting offshoots and while it may look complex, the goal is uniformity and simplicity in pruning, training and harvesting.

It also sets the stage for more automation, including mechanical harvesting one day.

Developed at the Washington State University research center at Prosser, the system still is in its infancy, said Matt Whiting, a WSU researcher in physiology who developed the method.

The work is being paid for with a portion of a $3.9 million federal grant that's focusing research efforts on speciality crops like cherries in orchard systems, post-harvest handling, packaging, marketing, equipment and new technology.

While startup costs are high -- at least $20,000 per acre -- the benefits of early production and lower cost of harvest have growers watching closely.

Three growers shared their experiences with the system during the annual Cherry Institute meeting Friday at the Yakima Convention Center, which attracted more than 550 growers and others in the cherry industry.

Under UFO systems, trunks and main branches are tied to trellises. The fruit-bearing shoots stick straight up in the air.

Whiting said the technique takes advantage of a cherry tree's inclination to grow upright and produce the best fruit on upright wood.

Grower Mark Hanrahan of Zillah, who has been using the system for five years, likened harvesting UFO cherries to plucking the strings of a banjo.

Grower Eric Shrum of The Dalles, Ore., told the audience he wanted to look into what the future holds for cherry growers.

Apple growers, for example, have long adopted training systems with more trees planted per acre.

The UFO systems can have as many as four times the number of trees as in a standard acre of cherries.

"I want to see what will be available, how we are going to grow in the future," Shrum said. "Apples have changed a lot in the last few years. Is a trellis the way cherries will grow? I don't know."

Thanks to the rootstock used in the UFO concept, fruit is produced in the second year, with more production and larger fruit size than a standard cherry orchard.