Bad weather of all sorts drives apple count down

ADDISON COUNTY — As fall rolls in, it’s looking like a mixed bag for area apple orchards. In a growing season that included a wet spring, extensive flooding, hailstorms and a tropical storm, orchards took a hit.
But those in the industry said it could have been worse.
“Despite some of the losses we’re looking at, it’s a relatively good crop,” said Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association.
Stan Pratt of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury said his apple trees were walloped by hail during storms in July and August, but in terms of production the season far outstripped last year, when a late spring frost decimated the apples.
“If you have a really bad crop one year, the next year you should have more,” said Pratt. “Consequently we have a lot this year — scads and scads of apples.”
But he estimated that 60 percent of the apples on his17 acres off Quarry Road sustained some damage from hail. Those, he said, will go into cider that the orchard makes onsite rather than to more lucrative whole apple sales.
Still, Pratt said there are still plenty of undamaged apples on the trees for picking. It’s just coming into prime picking season at the orchard now — Ginger Gold, Macintosh, Paula Red, Sansa, Gala and Honeycrisp apples are all in season, with 50 other varieties still ripening.
Justis said that while Vermont produced more than 800,000 bushels of apples last year, this year harvest estimates are closer to 600,000.
That’s not due only to conditions in Addison County — he said estimates show a smaller supply of apples on the national level, meaning that apple prices will likely stay strong.
Justis stressed that significant year-to-year fluctuations in apple production come with the territory. Accordingly, apple yields are generally averaged over five years to even out the ups and downs from year to year.
There’s also a great deal of regional variation, said Justis. While many Addison County producers were hit hard by late spring frosts last year, overall production was strong.
“Even in a small state like Vermont, we have significant (weather) variations, from the Champlain Islands to the Lower Connecticut River Valley,” said Justis.
Even within the space of a few miles, weather can vary significantly.
Bob Douglas Jr. runs Douglas Orchard and Cider Mill in Shoreham with his brother Scott. Bob said the trees in their 60-acre orchard didn’t catch any of the hail that Middlebury did, but the wet weather in the spring came in the window for prime pollination. He estimated that 30 or 40 trees also blew over in late August, during Tropical Storm Irene.
“Still, we have a better crop than expected,” said Douglas.
In an average year, he said Douglas Orchard harvests 30,000 bushels of apples. Though he said it’s too early to tell what the yield will be this year, Douglas is estimating it could be half the average.
Due to blemishes on the apples this year, he said the national distributor the orchard sells many of its apples to won’t be taking any apples. So Douglas Orchard will sell everything locally — at the store on the property, to other area orchards and to local distributors.
For now, said Douglas, he’s just hoping for dry weather to finish out the year.
“If it would just dry out a little, we could get out there and pick,” he said. “Right now there’s days you can’t pick, and every time you drive through you’re making more ruts.”
Meanwhile, in Cornwall, Brad Koehler of Windfall Orchard said the wet weather turned out helping his three acres of trees.
“So far, so good,” he said. “During the storm, I had a couple trees tip over because the ground was so wet, but my yields are probably average yields.”
Justis said that, for the fall, most Vermont orchards will have plenty of apples for picking — it’s on the wholesale level that the shortages will start to show, since growers won’t be able to store as many apples to sell through the winter.
“There will be plenty through December and January,” he said.
By early spring, apples will be coming ripe in other areas of the country, so Justis said there won’t be any shortage of apples on the supermarket shelves. But, he said, those who want Vermont apples should buy them while they can this season.
“There will be adequate supplies of apples, but the ones that benefit Vermont growers the most are the direct to consumer sales,” said Justis.
“We’re really encouraging consumers to go out and take advantage of the fall crop, because it’s probably going to be running out sooner than usual.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas

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