Considerable debate exists around the best tree size and training systems for cider apple production. In the past several decades, tree size in many commercial orchards have shrunk, and those smaller trees have been planted at higher densities of trees per acre. This intensification has led to generally increased yields, decreased labor inputs, and increased dessert fruit quality in many orchards. However, the economic output of such orchards is contrasted with high up-front input costs, and the unique price and production characteristics of cider apples may compromise profitability in such a high-input, high-output system.
Modern high density apple orchard systems require three components that directly affect revenue generated: precocity, yield, and fruit price. While this is true for all planting and training systems, the high upfront installation costs of high-density orchards requires that these factors are optimized in order to achieve positive return on investment and long-term profitability. A tall spindle planting system with 1,000 trees per acre may cost $30,000 or more to install (2022 prices) not including land purchase. In order for this investment to generate a profitable yield, the orchard should produce upwards of 1,000 bushels of fruit per acre annually and be at full production by year five. This is not always attainable, especially with biennial cider cultivars, but heavy yields in the ‘on’ years and high fruit price may offset losses in every other year. Surveys of New England growers of traditional European cider apples found no respondents who reported achieving those target yields. However, growers of dual-purpose fruit have indicated and shown successful annual production with optimal yield but which may be sold at a lower price than European-type cider apples. Tall spindle of similar fruiting wall systems may be suitable to an over-the-row mechanical harvester which would reduce labor costs substantially, but such units are still in prototype phase at this point.
Many cider apple growers choose to reduce establishment costs by planting more traditional freestanding trees on semidwarf rootstocks such as M. 7, MM. 106, MM. 111, Bud. 118., or the more modern G. 30, G. 935, and G. 890. Densities of 150-400 trees per acre are common for these systems, and tree support is typically non-existent to minimal. This saves on installation costs, but sacrifices precocity because the trees have to be grown to sufficient size with adequate scaffold limbs to hold a full crop of fruit. These systems may take 7-10 tears to reach full production, which can substantially reduce their overall profitability compared to high density systems. However, the uncertainties of reduced precocity, biennial bearing, and market acceptance that can come with cider apples may justify a lower-cost investment that could be less risky overall than the high establishment costs of a high density system. One other advantage of freestanding central leader trees is that at maturity they may be more suitable to shaker harvesting. This is common in European cider apple systems where the equipment to shake and ground harvest fruit is widely available and dramatically reduces labor costs. This harvesting method has drawbacks, I that fruit can be damaged and must be pressed immediately, and there are food safety considerations when using fruit that are dropped to the ground such that orchards who use this practice must ensure complete segregation of the supply chain between ground harvested fruit destined only to fermentation and any fruit that could be used for juice or other purpose as covered by the Food Safety Modernization Act.