ADDISON COUNTY — Cool temperatures and plenty of sunshine herald good news for apple growers in Addison County.
Those conditions are paving the way for good color on this year’s crop of apples, as well as thick crowds at pick-your-own orchards in the region.
“It’s a very good crop,” said Bill Suhr, the owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, and many orchardists in the region are reporting similar news. Pickers took to the field last month and will be busy harvesting the county’s apple crop well into October.
Of course, not every orchard has been so lucky. One of the largest operations in the state — Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall — saw their crop wiped out by a freak hailstorm in June.
“This is the first time in 35 years we were completely wiped out by hail,” said Eric Boire, the packing house manager at Sunrise.
In a typical year, Sunrise packs anywhere from 125,000 to 150,000 bushels of apples to ship to buyers like Trader Joe’s and Price Chopper.
This year, though, the hail means that apples at the orchard aren’t cosmetically suited for packing for wholesale. Pickers at the orchard are still harvesting the fruit to be used in apple cider, but now the orchard’s managers are stuck purchasing apples from other growers to ship to the customers they typically supply. Most of those apples will come from western New York.
They aren’t bound to do so by contract, Boire explained, but they’ve “got a lot of customers to keep happy.”
Other growers in the area saw small portions of their crop damaged. Suhr said four of his 100 acres of apples were damaged, and Andrea Ochs, the owner of Crescent Orchards in Orwell, joked that her fruit hasn’t gone “unkissed” by Mother Nature.
But even at Sunrise Orchards, by all accounts the hardest hit of local orchards when it came to the June hailstorm, Boire said there’s no reason to grow frustrated by the uncontrollable actions of Mother Nature.
“Somebody gets it every year, and our number came up,” he said.
The topic of weather aside, local growers had mostly good news to report about this year’s crop.
Suhr said he’s glad to see that the tight economy isn’t keeping families away from pick-your-own-apple events at local orchards. In fact, last weekend brought in the largest crowd Suhr has ever seen at his Shoreham orchard.
“Families are traveling and going out locally,” he said.
Ochs pointed out that it’s not just growers with pick-your-own operations that need to convince local buyers to support orchards. Ochs and her husband harvest apples from trees on around 200 acres, and in addition to their land in Orwell they lease orchard space in Cornwall and Shoreham. Being spread out like that is a great way to hedge their bets, she said, particularly in the case of a threat like hail.
Ochs sells some of her apples at farmers’ markets in Orwell and Middlebury, as well as some local businesses.
“We have to educate the consumer to the difference of locally produced foods compared to those that are brought in from across the country or across the globe,” she said. Local foods may cost a little more, she went on, but she sees a difference in taste. She also says that extra money goes to keeping local growers in business.
And this year, money spent on local apples is supporting an increased number of Vermonters who turned out for seasonal work during the harvest.
Traditionally, the bulk of the apple picking labor force in Addison County is made up of temporary workers from Jamaica who return to the area year after year for the harvest. The majority of the harvest positions are still filled by Jamaicans, but this year some orchardists said they saw more job applications from local workers than ever before.
At Sentinel Pine Orchards, owner Roberta Blodgett said more Vermonters are picking apples this year at the Shoreham orchard. Several workers are traveling from Rutland for the seasonal work, a change Blodgett chalked up to the tight job market.
Suhr also saw a surge in the number of job applicants at his orchard.
“That’s good that we have labor available locally,” he said. “That’s not always the case.”
Now that the harvest is underway in earnest, apple pickers will continue to work until the end of October or into November, depending on the weather. And at many packing facilities in the county the work of packing and shipping bushels of apples will stretch into next spring.