A Rosy Season for Apples
Growers Report Return to Normal After Last Year’s Poor Yields
At Wellwood Orchards in Weathersfield, Vt., on Oct. 4, 2013, orchard worker Linval Notice pours apples he picked into bins. Notice is from Jamacia and has been working at the farm for seven years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Connie Cox, of Roanoke, Va., picks apples on Oct. 4, 2013, at Wellwood Orchards in Weathersfield, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Weathersfield — Roy Mark, who owns Wellwood Orchards near Weathersfield Center Road, sat down at his workbench late Friday morning, his hands cloaked in oversized green rubber gloves glistening with the mashed remnants of apples.
Mark, 70, had just spent the previous six hours — since 5 o’clock in the morning — pressing roughly 350 gallons of cider to sell at his farm’s store, and he still had two hours of cleanup work ahead of him. It’s his least favorite job on the farm, he said, but somebody’s got to do it.
In any case, things are pretty good at the orchard this year: “decent size, decent crop,” Mark said.
He expects the pick-your-own apple season to run through the last weekend of the month.
“Anything’s better than last year,” he said. “Everybody got froze out. ... (This year) is a lot like a normal year.”
Several Upper Valley farmers and state apple experts said Mark is not alone: This probably won’t turn out to be a banner season, but things are certainly better than last year, when a warm spring followed by biting frosts and hail storms disrupted the growth cycle, forcing some apple growers and pick-your-own operations to abandon more than half of their crops.
“Certainly compared to the last two years, most farmers are very optimistic about their crops for this season,” said Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association. “Of course, we’re never going to be satisfied until the last apple is in storage or has been sold, but we did have in 2011 and 2012 some pretty serious hail damage and also a lot of losses because of spring frost, and this year we have really a good crop.”
Terence Bradshaw, a researcher with the University of Vermont Apple Program, said that many people have been led to believe that this is an exceptional apple season by the abundance of wild apples hanging from trees in backyards or on roadsides.
The difference, though, is that unmanaged trees generally had no crops last year, meaning this year’s buds have been growing since last June.
“The trees, they have a lot more resources in a low crop year to produce fruit buds for the following year,” he said. “They spent all of last spring and summer building this year’s crop and so they have all these apples on the roadsides this year and breaking their branches.”
This year’s managed apple production is about a 5 to 10 percent jump over the five-year average.
“Overall, it’s a good year, but it’s not the explosive year that people think it is,” he said.
Last year at Wellwood, Mark was among the region’s farmers who picked less than half of his normal crop, and his pick-your-own season was over by the first weekend of October. Nancy Franklin, who co-owns Riverview Farm in Plainfield with her husband, Paul, said she sees a similar improvement this year.
“Last year, honestly, I can’t remember how much we lost,” Franklin said, estimating it was up to 60 percent of her approximately 12 acres of trees.
But this year, she said, “it’s been a good season,” with an uptick in pick-your-own apple customers passing through the farm.
“Apple-wise, it’s been pretty good,” she said. “We had a normal spring, it wasn’t 80 degrees in March, so that was nice. ... Not an outstanding year, but a good year.”
Despite a rainy June, Justis said farmers are reporting a fairly “clean” crop, meaning the apples are free of fungal disease known as apple scab. While the disease doesn’t affect an apple’s taste or edibility, it causes unsightly blemishes deformations of the fruit and is a put off to consumers.
June’s wet weather made it difficult for farmers to implement early rounds of spray treatments to prevent apple scab, he said. But that threat has largely stayed at bay, and the wet weather provided a boost to the crop.
“The rain was kind of a two-edged sword,” he said. “It keeps growers from being able to get in and do maintenance on their crops, but on the other hand, apples have a very high concentration of water. I think overall the individual size of the apple is probably larger than typical.”
Shannon and Todd Seymour, of Lempster, N.H., noticed the size of the apples at Wellwood on Friday, when they brought their 3-year-old son Konnor to pick half a bushel of apples. Konnor sat in a wagon and munched on a Cortland.
“It was really good,” Shannon Seymour said. “There were a lot and they were big, and they tasted good.”
When asked what he liked about apple-picking, Konnor, overcome with shyness, responded by shoving the fruit in his mouth.
Jessica Figley, who runs King Blossom Farm in Grantham with her parents, Jeff and Susan, said their pick-your-own apple orchard fared relatively well last year, but they’re nonetheless having a good showing this season, as well.
The biggest difference this year, she said, is the number of customers: more and more people are turning out.
“I guess the business side of it, just being known and people being outspoken about it and liking our orchard has been the best out of the 30 years,” she said.
Woodstock honors the fruit today and Sunday at the Pumpkin and Apple Celebration, hosted by Billings Farm & Museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. There will also be an apple pie contest today at the Fall Festival and Chili Cook-Off at Claremont’s Visitor Center Park from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.