‘Hooked on horticulture.’

July 15, 2022

MSU Extension Tree Fruit Educator Emily Lavely stands by the apple trellis system at the West Michigan Research Center in Weare Township.

‘Hooked on horticulture.’

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor. 

WEARE TOWNSHIP — Dr. Emily Lavely brings a wealth of knowledge to her job as the Michigan State University Extension tree fruit educator.

Lavely mainly works at the MSU Extension Office in Hart, but spends plenty of time in the research lab at Earl and Linda Peterson West Michigan Research Station, which opened less than a year ago in August of 2021. Lavely joined the MSU Extension team last October.

Located on 68 acres of farmland, research at the donor-owned facility focuses on peaches, cherries, pears and apples.

Created by the non-profit organization West Central Michigan Horticultural Research Inc., the project supports agriculture in Oceana, Mason and Newaygo counties. 

Lavely, originally from northeastern Indiana, obtained her undergraduate degree in agronomy from Purdue University. Agronomy is the science of soil management and crop production. Her studies focused on corn, soybeans and small grains like wheat. 

“My senior year, I started getting a lot more interested in horticulture, so I started working with a professor there who did work on apples. I worked at an orchard between my junior and senior years and got really hooked on horticulture. Horticulture is the study of fruit and nut crops.”

Lavely went on to graduate school at Penn State where she obtained a master’s degree studying strawberries and then a PhD studying apples.

While working on her PhD, Lavely also studied the invasive pest, the spotted lantern fly, which feeds on tree sap. “I was looking to see how the lantern fly was affecting forest trees.”

Although Lavely did not directly grow up in an agricultural environment, her grandfather was a second-generation apple farmer. “I grew up hearing stories, but I never got to see it in full operation,” she said.

“My primary role is working with growers and providing information.” Lavely often helps growers identify and deal with pests. She is also working on ways to efficiently thin overabundant fruit trees; evaluate new apple varieties; and provide more efficient irrigation practices.

“The extension was created as a pipeline between university research and the farmer. My job is to tell the growers what kind of research is going on; what’s new; and what would help them.”

Lavely hosts weekly breakfast meetings at the research center for area growers. 

“Inside the fence is where the fruit-growing magic happens,” Lavely said of the fields behind the new facility. “We’ve got some peach trees; a lot of tart cherries; some new sweet cherries; and then almost 6,000 apple trees that just went in this year.” There are also old pear trees around 75 years old that are used in the research. “Most of the projects here are in collaboration with professors.

“This area is so diverse agriculturally.” Many local farmers grow several different crops, such as asparagus — Oceana County’s major crop — along with many other fruits and vegetables. 

“It’s a challenge managing it, but it has protected our growers over the years,” she said, pointing out the economic security diversity provides. 

“One of the big challenges for a lot of fruit is that fruit trees produce a lot more fruit than what we need. If you have too many fruit on the tree — especially for peaches and apples — you’ll get a lot of fruit, but they will all be really small. That’s not what we want to eat — you don’t want a tiny apple. What growers do every year is they knock off a portion of the fruit, and you get a nice-sized apple or peach, and it tastes good. But, it’s expensive to go by hand and have someone thin a tree and pull off some of that fruit.

“So, we’re working with a chemical company to see if we can use one of their products they developed to spray the tree with a compound that is based off a plant hormone that is naturally-produced by the tree to knock off some of those peaches and then you wouldn’t have all that labor cost involved in knocking peaches off by hand.”

The trees would be sprayed one or two times around bloom. 

Lavely is presently working on a project evaluating different apple varieties. “EverCrisp came out of this breeding program.

“We’ve got trees here that I am looking at how the trees grow; how the fruit looks; how it tastes to see if it’s a variety that would be of interest here in west Michigan.

“One of the big challenges in our area is cherry leaf spot, which is a major disease that can kill cherry trees over time. It’s a fungus that infects the leaves. They start to turn yellow and they just fall off the tree. Trees need those leaves to make energy and through photosynthesis. The trees don’t have enough energy to make it through the winter, and they try to grow the next spring and they die.”

Researchers are working on trials to protect those precious cherry tree leaves. 

Lavely is also working on an irrigation project. “We need to look at it more systematically, so we know how much water we’re putting into the ground when it’s really needed during growth periods.”

Not only can crops be under-irrigated, but they can also be overwatered. “That can affect how the nutrients are getting into the plant — if you are putting on too much water you might be leaching nutrients through the soil which could have an impact on our waterways. It’s also a waste of money because growers are putting down fertilizer and it’s going past the roots.”

The way that apple trees are grown has changed dramatically over recent years with smaller trees in close proximity using posts and wires. Apples have to cross pollinate to make fruit when grown from seed. But the new high-density method on the trellis system eliminates cross pollination by growing from the root system instead growing from seed. “It’s a lot more efficient to pick typically and you get better quality fruit. You get better sunlight which is really important for the fruit. It’s easier to harvest.” 

The apple’s red color comes from sunlight. “You need good sunlight to have good quality fruit.

“The goal of the station is to be a state-of-the-art research facility. Some of the goals for research going forward are: how do we put in planting technology like robotic harvesters and using drone technology? Some of that is being developed in Washington, but it hasn’t really been brought to Michigan yet. There is a bit of a ways to go.”

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