Grafting and growing

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Mackintosh Fruit Farm recently put up deer fencing to help keep the animals from sneaking into their orchards. Photo courtesy of Mackintosh Fruit Farm

by Sally Colby

When Bill Mackintosh wanted to establish an orchard 30 years ago, he couldn’t afford to purchase trees. But he came up with a solution, and it brought him to where he is today.

“At the time I was doing some consulting, so I knew which varieties of apples and peaches I wanted to grow,” said Bill. “When I started to plant, I learned how to grow my own trees. I started a nursery and sold trees to other growers in the Mid-Atlantic. There’s a saying in the nursery business: ‘Sell the best and plant the rest.’ I had plenty of trees that weren’t 100% but they grew fine. That was the beginning.”

When Bill and his wife Lori established Mackintosh Fruit Farm in Berryville, VA, the market for processing apples was lucrative. However, by the time young trees came into production, the market wasn’t profitable. To hasten the bearing time for new varieties, Bill stump-grafted scions to establish fresh market varieties on existing rootstock. He also planted new blocks with varieties popular among consumers.

Today, the apple orchards at Mackintosh Fruit Farm are grown in a high-density system. Bill currently monitors several high-density test plantings, including Honeycrisp on Bud 9. “Bud 9 is a runty rootstock and Honeycrisp is a runty scion,” he said. “The combination might work with six feet between rows.”

Bill said growing his own stock is usually to his advantage. “Scion is almost always available,” he said, “but there are still royalties on many so I can’t propagate them. Ambrosia came off patent a few years ago, and it’s a fantastic apple. We buy other varieties like Crimson Crisp®, Evercrisp® and Ludacrisp®.”

To keep up with the latest fruit research that benefits growers, Bill works with Virginia Tech to trial new varieties. “What’s frustrating is that growers start these trees and when they’re about to start picking, here comes another variety,” he said. “But for consumers, the varieties will be phenomenal.”

Bill also keeps an eye on apples at the grocery store and purchases new varieties to sample. “SugarBee® has everything that makes a great apple great,” he said. “Cosmic Crisp® is a good apple but there are lot of new ones that are better.” Bill added that accelerated breeding programs help bring new varieties to growers faster. DNA testing on leaves of grafts can predict traits without having to grow apples to maturity.

Bill grows about 10,000 to 20,000 new trees annually, selling about 15,000 bare root trees annually to growers he’s worked with over the years. Although it takes a lot of time to process trees and fulfill orders, Bill said he’s fortunate to have older, experienced growers who help.

The season at Mackintosh Farms begins with strawberries, followed by sweet cherries, brambles, vegetables, peaches, nectarines and apples. “Apples are probably about one-third of what we grow,” said Bill. “We also make our own jams, jellies and cider.”

Mackintosh Fruit Farm draws a diverse ethnic population from the metropolitan D.C. area. “A lot of people come here because they know we have Honeycrisp, EverCrisp® and CrimsonCrisp®,” said Bill. “Those varieties bring people back. About 80% of our customer base is from northern Virginia and D.C., and they like sweeter fruit.”

Since sweet cherries are a customer favorite, Bill will plant additional red and yellow cherry trees this spring. “Sweet cherries are tricky,” he said. “They’re very sensitive between bud swell and bloom. Rainier is one of the most popular, and we also have Chilean and Regina™.”

Customers appreciate the selection of Asian pears. Bill recalled last year’s Asian pears as one of the best ever, but at one point he thought the crop was lost. “I couldn’t find any pear blossoms,” he said. “They were thinned so early so the size and quality was out of this world.”

Bill deals with several pests, including deer, and hopes the new deer fence he’s putting up will help save fruit. “The insect pests in this area are coddling moth, oriental fruit moth, brown marmorated stinkbug and woolly apple aphid,” he said. “Leafroller hasn’t been that much of an issue for the last 10 years or so. Birds have also been a problem – they love our Asian pears and some of the early apples like Ginger Gold. Birds are devastating to the sweet cherries, so we have bird scare units.”

Disease issues for the area include glomerella and bitter rot, both serious fungal diseases. Although spotted wing drosophila seeks the soft fruits, Bill hasn’t had a big problem with it. “If you aren’t on top of it, it’ll get you,” he said. “But if you’re aware of it, especially in the soft fruits, it can be managed.”

An ongoing challenge is frost. “We’re just under 600 feet, and a lot of the surrounding ground people are growing apples at over 700 feet,” said Bill. “I put up a second wind machine and have heaters under the cherries. I’m always looking for something new to improve how everything comes through in spring.”

Mackintosh Fruit Farm markets fruit primarily through the lucrative U-pick model. “We had always just opened the doors and people came,” said Bill. “We didn’t limit the number of people here until the pandemic hit. Last year, when we opened in spring for sweet cherries, we were bombarded and it was a nightmare.”

To ensure a safe experience for customers, the Mackintoshes began to schedule appointments. It took a little while to figure out the details, including the ideal number of people present at one time, how many in a group and the length of their visit. However, after he fine-tuned his plan, the people who came were much happier and many told him they wouldn’t have come without an appointment. He plans to schedule appointments for strawberries and cherries this coming season and will make adjustments as needed.

Bill and Lori’s son Taylor works at another orchard and helps his parents when he can. After working at a greenhouse, their daughter Madison recently returned to the farm. She plans to expand vegetable production on the farm with the help of a greenhouse.

“I’ve always wanted to put up a greenhouse, and this year we had the opportunity to do it,” said Bill. “I just finished a small greenhouse to start plants, and we’ll soon start putting in a 30-by-128-foot greenhouse. If we do well with that, we’ll add one each year until we have three. They’ll have double layer plastic and heat.”

Offering a variety of fruit and adding to the established on-farm market and commercial kitchen has paid off. “Fortunately, there’s demand for fresh produce from the farm,” said Bill. “People want to get out of the city and we hit it just right.”

Visit Mackintosh Fruit Farm online at MackintoshFruitFarm.com.

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