Apple crop is skimpy this year

Mort Gellman of Holland, Vermont, stands next to one of his Honeycrisp trees. He manages a 100-tree apple orchard on his property. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle 9-5-2012

After a long, hot summer, people may be looking forward to fall foliage, cooler weather and crisp apple cider.  When the foliage will change or the weather cool is anyone’s guess, but at least one thing is certain:  This autumn’s apple crop won’t be nearly as bountiful as it was in 2011. 

“We had a lot of frost damage this spring,” said Mort Gellman, who manages an orchard of about 100 apple trees of ten different varieties on his property in Holland. 

Mr. Gellman, like many apple growers, was hit hard by the April frost that followed an unusually warm March. 

“Just when they were in full bloom, the temperature went down to 15 degrees,” he said.  “Yep, it was a big hurtin’.” 

Mr. Gellman sells his apples mainly through the Newport Farmers’ Market, and people are welcome to come pick their own.   

“I sold every apple I had,” Mr. Gellman said in reference to last year’s season. 

Some varieties fared better this year than others.  He estimates that he’s down about 75 percent on his crop of Cortlands, but only about 50 percent on his Honeycrisps.  His Rome Beauty tree, which is a very late bloomer, had its best year since he planted it three seasons ago. 

Mr. Gellman said the Rome Beauty is one of the finest baking apples, and it’s a variety from the 1800s. 

As of August 30, his apples weren’t ready for picking just yet.  His earliest variety, Zestar, had about one and a half or two weeks left before harvesting could start. 

Mr. Gellman planted all the trees himself, and takes care of them mostly by himself, sometimes with the help of a neighbor.  He turned 86 in August. 

“I’m not doing this to get rich,” he said.  “The orchard is my life.”

Mr. Gellman started working in apple orchards when he was 18 years old.  At one point in his life, he ran a large vegetable farm in his native New Jersey, where he planted 50 acres of tomatoes for the Campbell’s Soup Company.  He also worked on a 5,000-tree apple orchard in Missouri in the mid-90s. 

“I know enough about growing because that’s most of what I ever did,” he said. 

He isn’t alone in having fewer apples this year.  In fact, the apple crop for all of Vermont is forecast to be down about 28 percent compared to last year. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the state can expect to see a crop of about 24 million pounds of apples, down from last year’s 33.5 million pounds. 

The dip in statewide production mirrors a drop in national production for the year.  NASS has forecast that U.S. apple production will weigh in at 8,065.7 million pounds this year — about a 14 percent drop from last year’s 9,420 million pounds. 

Cate Hill Orchard in Greensboro also expects much less of a crop this year.

“I think we had a total crop failure, really, from that late freeze, or rather that early spring,” said Maria Schumann, who owns and operates the orchard withJosh Karp. 

Last year, Cate Hill Orchard had about 60 or 70 fruit bearing trees, Ms. Schumann said.  This year, about 20 of their trees bore fruit.  “And they all have way less than they had last year,” she said. 

Ms. Schumann cites the same reason as Mr. Gellman:  the April frost. 

“It’s a normal time to have that kind of freeze, it was more just that everything was three weeks ahead because of that warm weather in March,” she said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year’s March was the warmest ever for the U.S. since formal record keeping began in 1895.   Some states experienced warmer weather than others that month.  Vermont was one of the states to experience its record warmest March, along with the biggest apple producing states in the eastern half of the country, Michigan and New York. 

Cate Hill Orchard sold apples and cider at farmers’ markets in Hardwick, Montpelier and Stowe last year.  Ms. Schumann said they probably won’t do cider this year, except for by the glass maybe. 

Cate Hill Orchard has a mix of trees that are about 100 years old and were inherited from Mr. Karp’s family.  They also have much newer trees, for a total of about 250 trees.  Ms. Schumann said there is no real difference in production among the fruit-bearing trees in terms of their ages. 

“Last year was such a fantastic year,” she said.  “There were apples everywhere.” 

She said that last year’s bounty may also have something to do with this year’s dearth. 

“A lot of apples, not all, but especially heirloom varieties, will tend to have on years and off years.  They won’t bear the same amount every year, even without a frost.” 

Terry Bradshaw, president of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers’ Association, also said last year’s big crop was a factor in this year’s smaller one.

“Last year was an incredible apple year in terms of quantity of fruit,” he said.  “Even maple trees had apples on them.”

Mr. Bradshaw said it’s prudent to manage an orchard so that spring buds are thinned to a number that doesn’t stress out the trees. 

“If you don’t, you’ll get what’s called biennial bearing,” he said, meaning that the trees will produce a big crop every other year, with little or no production on the off years. 

“So that’s kind of the one-two punch of why things might be a little bit lower this year,” he said.  “I noticed before the frost even came that the count of buds was low.”

Mr. Bradshaw makes the bulk of his observations at his home in Calais and on the orchard he manages for University of Vermont (UVM) Extension in South Burlington. 

He estimates that even without the frost, many trees that produced heavily last year would have only had about 70 percent production this year.  

Mr. Bradshaw explained that it’s in the apple trees’ best interests not to produce a lot of apples each and every year. 

“The only reason why any plant produces fruit is not to feed us, but to have a baby, to keep spreading the plant along,” he said.  “What the plant wants to do is make lots of those seeds, a lot of apples, and it wants to be fairly small so animals can spread them and it doesn’t mind not doing it every year because it breaks up pest cycles.  But the role of an apple grower is to grow big red apples every year, so we’re trying to steer nature in our direction.”

Biennial bearing may contribute to a lack of wild apples this year, which were in abundance in many areas of Vermont in 2011.

“A managed orchard has an annual crop,” Mr. Bradshaw said.  “Whereas wild trees, if they put all their resources out one year, they don’t mind taking a breather.”

Mr. Bradshaw said that state crop production has been variable.  He said the UVM Extension orchard is looking at about a half crop this year. 

“But I’ve heard of some growers saying they’re having their best year in recent memory, so it’s variable, and it depends on the varieties and when their blooms open,” he said.

“In Cabot there are maybe 3,000 trees in a fairly young orchard and they’re having their best crop ever,” he said.  “I’ve heard in the Eastern Townships they’re doing very well.  So there’s plenty of fruit.”  

“The economics of growing is interesting this year,” he said.  “If you’ve got fruit, you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, because all those packing houses and processors in west New York and Michigan have been driving to New England with checkbooks in hand trying to buy up fruit, and a lot of that’s for processing cider.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see $7 or $8 jugs of cider this year, so it’s good to be a grower.”

Mr. Bradshaw also said that those who did get fruit this year may find themselves with an especially good quality crop.  He said the sunny and warm weather has been complemented by just enough moisture to get the fruit to size.  

“I’m seeing larger fruit and redder fruit, because there hasn’t been a lot of cloud cover,” he said.  “The sun is what turns the apples red.”

Leaves turn solar energy into carbohydrates, which translates into a sweeter, higher quality apple, he said. 

“The other factor that turns apples red is cool nights,” Mr. Bradshaw said.  “Macs are classic with that, once you get nights in the 40s — and I think the weather is shifting and we’re going to come into the fall weather here.”

He pointed out that apple trees are grown all over the world, so they are very adaptable to different climates.  He said lack of rain and warm temperatures shouldn’t affect the trees. 

“The fruit buds are already set,” he said, referring to the middle of summer.  “If you get a drought in June, that would affect things.  The conditions that we’ve seen, I think we’ll have a good crop for next year.  Trees are adaptable, and they know that in August it dries up.  August is our least precipitous month every year, and all of the tree’s growth processes slow down by the middle or end of July because that’s how the tree’s programmed, to work with the systems we have.”

Chris Rawlings of Heath Orchard in Stanstead, Quebec, said that he’s seeing a crop of smaller quantity but higher quality this year. 

“It’s holding at about 65 percent of an average year,” he said.  “There are varieties which are better than usual in quality, not quantity.

“What I’m seeing on the MacIntosh is that, despite the fact that we had this event of frost on the blossoms, the apples that have come through for the most part are beautiful — round and have very little crevices and bumps for scab spores to install themselves, so they’re much prettier.  They’re an average size, no bigger, no smaller.  They’re looking good and they’re a reasonable size given the dryness.”

He said his Cortlands are looking particularly good as well.  The MacIntosh apples will start getting picked this Friday, September 7, which is early.

“We’re harvesting a week to ten days earlier than usual, across the board,” he said. 

Mr. Rawlings owns and operates the orchard with Lynn Heath.  They have 3,500 trees on 15 acres.  

Mr. Rawlings told the same tale as other growers — that the warm March followed by cold snaps accounts for most of this year’s lighter yield.  He said his Melba trees do take a breather every second year.

He also said that “micro micro climates” within his orchard account for some of the discrepancies he sees among his trees, even among the same varieties. 

“Nothing much is making a lot of sense, you know,” he said.

Still it sounds like Heath Orchard will have plenty of fruit to pick, as will most Vermont growers. 

Even though Vermont will see a significant drop in apple production, it’s still doing better than some other states.  Michigan — normally a top three apple producing state — is looking at a crop of 105 million pounds, as compared to last year’s 985 million pounds; New York is forecast to have 590 million pounds, compared to last year’s 1,220 million pounds. 

Washington — usually the apple producing leader of the country — is slightly up this year, at a total of 5,700 million pounds. 

NASS surveyed orchards of 100 or more bearing-age apple trees to gets its numbers.

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