Orchards: Apple crop OK, but not the best

ADDISON COUNTY — Local orchards are reporting mixed results for this year’s apple crop: Growers say it’s not as good as last year’s larger-than-average harvest, but is still considered at least close to typical.
“We are picking less fruit than we originally thought we would,” said Bill Suhr of Champlain Orchards. “But we’re grateful that we’ve done a lot of planting lately. A lot of young trees are maturing.”
Champlain Orchards plants on just over 200 acres, and averages around 80,000 bushels per harvest.
Suhr said the size of apples this year is good, but not excellent. He added that crops are benefiting from cool evenings and bright, sunny days in September, which help mature the fruit and help develop its rich color.
Because of Vermont’s changing climate and the delay of the first frost, Suhr planted varieties of apples this year that require longer growing seasons.
“With the extended season, some of that fruit is doing well,” Suhr said, pointing to Granny Smith and Pink Lady varieties that normally would not succeed in Vermont.
In addition to selling apples by the bushel, Champlain Farms also produces apple butter, cider, hard cider, cider syrup and cider donuts. Suhr said he also hopes a series of weekend concerts the orchard is hosting will boost business at Champlain Farms through the fall.
Bob Douglas of Douglas Orchard in Shoreham said this year’s crop is good, but doesn’t stack up to 2013.
“Last year was a spectacular year. This year is pretty normal,” Douglas said. “The Macintosh and Cortland are off 30 to 40 percent.”
Douglas said the weather earlier this year did not favor apples.
“We had a long, cold spring, which didn’t help pollination,” Douglas said.
Douglas, who uses his 55 acres’ worth of apples to produce cider as well as sell to markets, said he’s still holding out hope that later rounds of the harvest will produce better results.
 “The first time around was discouraging,” he said. “I’m hoping the second time around may pick up more than we expect.”
Despite a mediocre harvest, Sentinel Pine Orchard has a good reason to celebrate — this year marks its 50th year in business. Owner Whitney Blodgett said his father, Whitney Blodgett Sr., purchased the orchard in 1964. Now, the orchard has 210 acres of trees.
“For Vermont, we’re large, but for the rest of the country, we’re small,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett attributed much of the orchard’s success for five decades to simplicity. While other orchards make other apple-based products, Sentinel Pine sells all its fruit to market.
“A lot of them are doing ciders and pies, but we just grow apples,” Blodgett said. “We sort them, we pack them, and then we sell them. Everything goes in trucks to Boston or Florida or to the Midwest.”
On average, the orchard produces 100,000 bushels of apples each year. This year, Blodgett said he is expecting 75,000 bushels. He said the lower-than-average harvest is a result of the harsh winter and early spring.
“We had a terrible bloom, and we lost a bunch of fruits to the heat in July,” Blodgett said.
WHITNEY AND ROBERTA Blodgett, owners of Sentinel Pine Orchard in Shoreham, are celebrating the orchard’s 50th anniversary. The orchard was started by Whitney’s father in 1964. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
McIntosh apples, a popular species, compose roughly two-thirds of the orchard’s annual yield.
“That has carried us through,” Blodgett said. “Our wholesale goes through our broker to the Boston market, where Macs are the number one variety.”
As a way to increase harvest yields, Blodgett said he has also shifted towards high-density planting, which places more trees on each acre.
“Instead of doing 25 by 30 spacing, we’re doing 4 by 15 or 6 by 15,” Blodgett said.
The orchard suffered a setback in 1992 when the packinghouse, which Blodgett’s father built in the 1970s, burned to the ground. Blodgett made the best of the situation.
“It gave us the opportunity to transform the storage facility and make it more modern,” Blodgett said. “Now we’re just one big complex.”
Sentinel Pine employs 64 Jamaicans and 15 locals during the harvest season, and about 13 people in the offseason.
Blodgett has worked on the orchard his whole life, and has also been married to his wife, Roberta, for 30 years. They have three daughters, two of whom are still in college. He said one might take over the orchard.
“That’s all in the air,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett said he is hopeful for the future of his family’s orchard, but is concerned that the U.S. may be growing more apples than consumers want.
 “There are tons of new acres in New York and Washington state, so overproduction is becoming an issue,” Blodgett said.
As another source of income, Blodgett also sold development rights on some land to the Vermont Land Trust. He can still use the acreage, but it is locked into agriculture in perpetuity. Blodgett said he thinks it is important to preserve Shoreham’s farming heritage from commercial and residential development.
“There’s a lot of land around us that’s also in the land trust,” Blodgett said. “I think that’s a positive thing.”
Blodgett joked about how tough it is to stay in business as an orchard, and said that he hopes he can keep Sentinel Pine open at least until his retirement.
“I’d hope to have at least another 15 years,” Blodgett said.

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