Maintaining an apple orchard before harvest is a demanding task that needs careful attention and a dedicated team. It involves a lot of work and requires close attention to detail. A hardworking team is essential for the success of the orchard. Hand thinning is important for good fruit quality. Skilled workers remove extra fruits to make sure there is enough space for the remaining ones to grow well. The reliance on manual labor is particularly pronounced in organic orchards, where the avoidance of synthetic chemicals necessitates only manual or mechanical thinning methods. This article will explore some of the methods, tools and challenges involved in hand or manual thinning.

Hand thinning plays a pivotal role in organic apple orchards. It takes time and care, but it's a precise and eco-friendly way to manage crops. Without using synthetic chemicals, hand thinning is important for balancing fruit quantity and quality. Orchard workers remove extra fruits by hand to give the remaining apples room to grow. This helps the apples become bigger, tastier, and have better quality. Hand thinning allows for precise decision-making, taking into account factors such as fruit location, health, and the specific needs of each tree. This method helps to prevent overcrowding and competition for resources. It also reduces the risk of damaging nearby fruits. Additionally, it helps to avoid causing stress to the apple trees. By avoiding chemical applications, hand/manual thinning aligns with the principles of organic farming, emphasizing sustainable practices, biodiversity, and a holistic approach to orchard management, ultimately contributing to the production of high-quality organic apples.

As with all thinning techniques, the first step in hand thinning processes is to set target fruit counts based on the variety, age and style of the trees. To have a successful apple harvest, it is important to set goals and start early in the season. This means pruning the trees properly before they bloom. Proper pruning is essential for a good apple harvest. It is best to do this early in the season to ensure healthy tree growth. Pruning is often done by hand on older growing styles where the structure of the trees does not work well with mechanical trimming tools. While manual pruning is a very labor-intensive process, it also allows for more control and precision. Trained and experienced pruners are able to target branches that are less likely to support fruit and to make sure fruit is spaced evenly as it develops.

The next step in hand thinning usually occurs after the fruit falls off naturally or after using a thinning spray. Hand thinning is done to remove excess fruit from the tree. This helps the remaining fruit to grow larger and healthier. Some immature fruit will naturally stop growing (abscission) and drop from the tree in the spring, typically about a month after bloom. This is the tree’s natural method for focusing on developing the remaining fruits, giving them a better opportunity to reach maturity with less competition. During chemical thinning processes additional immature fruitlets are stopped before they develop further. With either chemical or natural abscission, the fruitlets often hang onto the tree after they have stopped growing. These shriveled and underdeveloped fruits can become an entry point for disease and pests if they are not removed from the three. Hand thinning these “mummy” fruits usually involves knocking the branches of the trees to dislodge the fruitlets, often using a pole to reach higher branches.

Almost all apple growers will employ some selective hand thinning techniques after fruit set and as fruits develop leading to harvest as needed, but organic growers must rely on this process much more as they do not have the opportunity to chemically thin excess fruit. Ensuring fruit is evenly spaced along the branch and the entire fruit canopy is vital for quality fruit development. In fruit trees, it's important to space the fruit evenly throughout the tree's canopy. The size difference within one tree is usually bigger than between trees. So, it's crucial to make sure the fruit is evenly distributed to reach target counts. Apples growing too closely together will cause damage as they grow together so tightly clustered fruit should be thinned. Additionally, branches that carry too much fruit as they grow are at risk for breaking so manually thinning will ensure excess fruit is removed before damage to the tree occurs. Apples growing too close to the trunk that are unable to get enough sun exposure to develop good color are also thinned before the tree devotes too many resources to make them larger.

Labor costs for manual thinning processes are high. Being able to equip, organize and train employees for this process efficiently is key to maintaining profitability. Typically, to determine the proximity of orchard areas to their desired counts post fruit drop, a count of sample trees within each area is conducted. Traditionally this is a very time-consuming and oftentimes inaccurate process done by visually counting each fruit by eye and recording these totals to calculate an average count per block. Tally counters and clipboards have long been the go-to tools for this process, but recent AI-trained digital tools, like Croptracker’s Crop Load Vision, can help increase the speed and accuracy of this assessment process. Digital tools help by ensuring more sample trees can be accurately counted in less time. Counting the fruit before sending out thinning teams is important. It helps to focus on areas that need attention the most. This can lead to better harvests and increased profit.

The tools for hand thinning are unsurprisingly uncomplicated and commonplace given the nature of the task. However, ensuring tools are sharp, clean and quality-made goes a long way.

Hand Thinning:

Pruning Shears or Scissors:

Pole Thinning:

Hand thinning is important for good fruit quality. It helps balance the amount of fruit produced with the quality of the fruit. This meticulous process, often performed by trained and experienced pruners, ensures even fruit spacing, promoting optimal size and flavor. The hand thinning approach most significantly used by organic growers, emphasizes sustainability and precise orchard management. As labor costs remain high, efficient organization, training, and the adoption of technology such as AI-trained digital tools are becoming imperative for maintaining profitability. Accurate fruit count estimates, facilitated by tools like Croptracker’s Crop Load Vision, streamline the assessment process, ensuring targeted and profitable harvests.

Croptracker develops agtech solutions for industry leaders. Located in Eastern Ontario, Canada, our mission is to make crop production safer, more efficient, and more profitable. Designed in partnership with fresh market producers and distributors, every tool we create is based on direct industry feedback. Croptracker’s award-winning farm software optimizes recordkeeping, labor tracking, production and cost management. Our integrative Harvest Quality Vision technology offers instant empirical analysis of crop samples exactly when you need it. Optimize your harvest season with Croptracker’s customizable solutions. Visit to learn more about our products and contact us for app based solutions.