By MAUREEN PICHÉ
It’s a good year to be an apple grower – and an apple eater, according to local orchard owners.
If there’s such a thing as stars aligning for an optimal apple season, growers with years in the business say this one was pretty close to it.
Several late spring frosts put fear in the hearts of local orchard owners, but the warm, relatively dry summer has led to early harvests and trees laden with big fruit.
Alan Goodwin of Goodwin Orchards, 37 Needham Rd., Potsdam, says three hard frosts right before Mother’s Day could have completely destroyed his crop.
“It’s amazing, since books say you’re supposed to lose all your blossoms below 25 degrees,” he marvels. “It was below 22 degrees here, yet a lot of the blooms survived.”
Goodwin, whose orchard is on the smaller side with about 170 trees, says an orchard only needs to maintain about five percent of its blossoms to remain commercially viable; and the added benefit of losing blossoms is that the fruit that remains is bigger. Lots of blossoms mean lots of small apples.
Jean Shyne of J&W Orchards, 737 County Rt. 38, Norfolk, said she and her husband, Walt, weren’t so lucky. They lost all of their apricots. But fortunately for them, the sheer volume of their 1,000-tree orchard made up for any blossom loss. They began picking apples about three weeks ago, and are predicting a bumper crop.
Following the spring cold blast, the rest of the summer was on the hot side, with just the right amount of precipitation, growers agree. The heat leads to an earlier harvest.
Pat Collins, who has been helping her friend Jeremy Brown with his 150-tree apple orchard on the Canton-Russell Road, Canton, estimates the apples there matured at least two weeks earlier than last year. “The summer was so, so hot,” she noted.
“With a dry summer, you get a lot less disease and insect problems,” Goodwin noted.
Shyne explained that too little rain means low fruit production, but too much rain will lead to rot.
“Last year was a terrible year,” she said. “Too much rain.”
But this year, she said, there’s plenty of healthy-looking fruit.
Goodwin said the warmth around Labor Day was also a concern. Apples in his orchard, especially the McIntoshes, began to drop. But the recent chilly nights have stopped that.
“They prefer the cold now,” he said. “It puts color on the fruit and turns the sugar into starch.”
The early frosts in the North Country have their pros and cons, Goodwin admits. While they finish the apples’ growth cycle, they also lead to a shorter growing season compared to other parts of the state and country.
“Last year, the Cortlands were caught in a hard frost in early October,” he said. “When it hits the low 20s too many times, the fruit starts to break down and turn to mush.”
An early harvest may help prevent that from happening this year, he added.
For the local consumer, the key to keeping apples for the longest period of time is cold storage.
Goodwin says the next best thing to commercial cold storage is the average home refrigerator. The 32-degree setting could keep apples in good shape until Christmas, he said.
All the growers said now is the time to gather your family for an afternoon of picking.
The most common brands are those you might expect: McIntosh, Cortland, Liberty, Fuji, Empire, St. Lawrence, and Burgundy. Cortland and Mac are still the favorites, although the sweet-sour combination of Honey Crisp is gaining in popularity among customers.
Collins said the Brown orchard is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, and baskets are supplied for visiting pickers. A small bag is $5, while a bushel is $10.
J&W Orchards is selling apples at Perry’s Big M, Spring St., Norwood, Al Smith’s Superette, Rt. 56, Norfolk, and the Potsdam Food Co-op, Elm St. They also have a stand at the Canton Farmers’ Market. A 5 lb. bag costs $3, except for Honey Crisp at $6, and a bushel costs $16.
Goodwin runs a roadside stand, but also has plenty of u-pick bags for customers. Both options are available Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to dark. A u-pick bushel (42 lbs.) is $16, and one they pick is $20.
He noted buying locally is good for your health, and good for the economy. “My apples are roughly half the cost of buying them in the market,” he said, asking customers to do some pound-for-pound comparison shopping. “I’m keeping my prices about the same as last year. With the down economy, it’s good to give people a break.”