Area orchards begin apple harvest early

ADDISON COUNTY — Fall apple picking season is coming a little early this year.
In fact, many area orchards have already begun to offer pick-your-own apples, because their earliest apples are already ripening.
“Our apples are about 10 days early, which is significant,” said Bill Suhr, who owns Champlain Orchards. “It’s probably the earliest crop we’ve ever seen.”
He added that his fall raspberries are already ripe, also more than a week ahead of expectations.
Bob Douglas, Jr., a partner at Douglas Orchard in Shoreham, said that his family’s early apples are also coming ripe about a week early.
While an early harvest means that most of the apples will be off the trees before the risk of winter weather sets in, it also means that the apples have had less time to develop on the trees.
“We’re not sure how they’re going to mature,” said Douglas.
An earlier harvest means that the apples may not get the cooler fall nights that they need to gain the full color that consumers expect of an apple.
Suhr said that this would not be an issue for the pick-your-own part of his operation — the plentiful warm weather and sunshine this summer have allowed the apples to develop their full taste ahead of schedule.
But this season apple pickers can’t use color as an indicator of ripeness, a situation which makes it more difficult to pick through the trees quickly and also poses problems when it comes time for orchards to sell their apples commercially.
Douglas said that his orchard sends between one third and one half of its average 30,000-bushel crop to a distributor, where the apples are expected to have a consistent color. Depending on how far the apples are from gaining their full color once they ripen, it may not even be worth it to send the apples away.
“If they’re not good enough, we’re not going to send them,” said Douglas. “It costs money for shipping.”
If it comes to that, Douglas said that they would sell some of those apples at the orchard and process some into cider, but that the orchard doesn’t have the capacity to process its entire crop.
So for now, it’s a waiting game — which is not an unfamiliar game to orchardists. It is a business where weather determines the end product, and one hailstorm or hard frost can decimate an entire area’s apples.
“It’s always iffy,” said Douglas. “We’re all in the same boat.”
An unexpected mid-May frost already threatened apple crops earlier this year, when the fruit was at a more delicate stage of production. Douglas said that the Champlain Valley dodged the major impact of that frost, since the area overall did not see as harsh a temperature drop as other parts of the region. His orchard’s crop did not take a large hit.
And while Champlain Orchards lost some of its developing fruit, Suhr said that with some new acreage this year, he is still hoping to meet his orchard’s typical crop of about 70,000 bushels.
Across the county, orchardists are keeping a close eye on the weather, and still hoping for warm days, cool nights and no inclement weather.
“You never know until you’re done what you’ve got,” said Douglas.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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