UW–Madison, apple growers bring data to the orchard

The robot weather station stands sentinel above the deer fence of an apple orchard in the hills near Hell Hollow Road in Richland County.

The device, a 21st-century enhancement of the ancient weathervane, is measuring wind, rain, humidity, temperature and sunlight duration and intensity.

Oakwood Fruit Farm installed this computerized weather station in the spring of 2018. Steve Louis says weather data helps with a number of tricky management decisions, including irrigation and thinning of young fruits. Photo: David Tenenbaum

Installed this spring, the weather station is part of a system aimed at advising owners of the 180-acre, family-owned Oakwood Fruit Farm about a number of critical procedures — think pruning, irrigation and pest control — needed to bring in a bountiful, healthy crop.

One crucial decision concerns timing a treatment that will eliminate more than three-quarters of the tiny fruits, says Amaya Atucha, a UW–Madison assistant professor of horticulture and Extension fruit crop specialist, who has been leading the effort to introduce the new technology.

Without thinning, the trees will be over-taxed and underproductive. Roughly speaking, about 80 percent of the flowers must be removed, a process that often involves multiple sprays of thinner followed by handwork to make final adjustments.

Thinning is necessary, but the timing and intensity are both tricky, says Steve Louis, one of the family’s fourth-generation of apple growers. “There are so many things that go into knowing when it should be done, and how much thinning we need.”

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