Rothwell finishes the tour of test plots, pulls the pickup back into the asphalt lot and puts it in park. Rain still splatters the windshield, and more dark clouds are pushing in from the west. She keeps the wipers on slow intermittent and lets the truck idle as she looks down the hill over the patchwork of test plots just days from green-up. How is it all different from 43 years ago when the first trees went in the dirt?“Well, I just don’t really know, I mean, I wasn’t here. I guess the state had money then, and the feds had money and there was more money flowing in. But more than that, I think it’s the pace of change and the complexity of the change. I mean since when are that many new fungicides available that are that complex? Or since when are we growing high-density apples in an entirely new system? Or growing dwarf cherries in an entirely new system and needing to find an entirely new harvester? And we’ve never had two entirely new invasive insect pests just drop into Michigan.” And, what about a full-time grape expert as wine grapes expand here? And what about a vegetable expert, as the local foods movement gains momentum and diversified-crop farms return?

So, yes, the research coordinator’s job demands long-term vision: what is the best way to shape the orchard of the future, or agriculture in general? And it demands near-term vision: what insect is likely to mount a deadly attack in the next six weeks? But it’s also an instant thing. “I get calls at home at night,” Rothwell says. “Like, ‘I’m out in the spray shed, and I’m thinking of spraying tonight, Nikki, what do you think? I’m looking at the weather and I gotta get out there, but I gotta share the sprayer with my brother, so he might need it too, so I gotta make a decision about whether we’re gonna spray tonight. Nikki, what do you think?'"

Open House:

Visit the Research Station

Hop on a tractor-pulled wagon and see firsthand where the orchard of the future is headed. Each year during Cherry Festival the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center opens to the public for five days of tours. July 1 thru 5,

This article is also featured in the June 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Subscribe today!

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski