Orchardists face difficult harvest

D an Wilson has been growing apples for nearly 40 years and he’s never seen a season quite like this one.

“We’ve been here on the farm since 1974 and it’s the worst season we’ve seen. The only thing that compares was a severe hail storm that occurred right before harvest in the mid 1980’s, and we had some freeze two years ago, but it wasn’t this bad,” Wilson said.

An unseasonably warm March that saw temperatures soar into the 70s and 80s jump-started apple blossoms and was followed by a series of hard freezes in April that destroyed much of the fruit before it even had an opportunity to grow.

Wilson, who owns and operates Hicks Orchard in Granville, estimates he lost a little more than half his crop and he’s not alone.

Across the region and state, this year’s apple crop is shaping up to be one of the slimmest in decades.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture crop forecast released last month estimates New York’s crop at 14 million boxes, down 54 percent compared to the state’s five-year average production of 30.7 million boxes. The crop is believed to be the state’s smallest since 1948.

 

Variable frost

McWhorter’s Orchard in Argyle was also hurt by this spring’s weather.

Mel McWhorter, who runs the farm with his wife, Kerrie, estimates he has 30 to 40 percent of a normal crop.

“Some were more affected by the frost in April than others. It depended a lot on the geography. You know from fifth-grade science class that cold air settles, so I have some pockets where there was a lot of damage and others that were at higher elevations that didn’t suffer as much damage,” Mel said.

“It varies horribly from row to row, tree to tree. I have one tree where the top 10 feet is just loaded but there is no fruit on the lower two-thirds.”

Wilson said the geography of his orchard also played a role in the amount of damage his crop suffered. “The trees at lower elevations suffered more damage while trees at the upper part of the orchard, at higher elevations where there is better air drainage, were less susceptible to freezing,” he said.

John Barber, who owns Apple Hill Orchard in Whitehall, fared better than most local producers because his orchard is located on a hill. “We’re down a little, but not a lot. I’d say we lost maybe 20 percent of the crop,” said Barber, who despite the difficult season, planted an additional 4,000 trees this year.

Because this spring’s weather caused blossoms to appear earlier, this year’s crop is ripening quicker than normal.

 

Hicks hit

Hicks’ Orchard opened for the season on Labor Day weekend and Wilson said some varieties are ripening as much as two weeks earlier than normal.

“The primary variety in this area, Macintosh, typically reaches its peak around the 15th of September, but peak is occurring right now,” Wilson said last week. “On the surface it will be a fairly normal season, but just not as much depth.”

And while this year’s crop will be smaller than past years, growers said the quality of the fruit that survived is very good.

“What I do have looks decent,” said McWhorter, who opened his orchard last weekend. “Traditionally, the hot and dry weather really throws off the sugar so the eating quality should be very high.”

Wilson, who has been forced to restrict his pick-your-own hours to weekends only, said some of the later varieties that bloomed later were less susceptible to freezing look good, but that doesn’t mean the season will extend into October.

“It’s been an unusual season and some things have ripened out of order,” Wilson said. “Wherever people decide to go, it would benefit them to call ahead.”

During an average year, New York’s apple producers grow 25 million bushels of apples, making it the second-largest apple-producing state in the country behind Washington. The 2010 crop was valued at $233 million.

The situation is so dire that the state legislature is considering a tax relief bill for New York’s apple farmers that would allow them to claim 35 percent of their crop losses.

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