Apple crop strong despite wacky weather

 ADDISON COUNTY — June saw a deluge of monumental proportions; early September was marked by unseasonable heat. What’s a farmer to do?
“The weather can be fickle,” noted Bill Suhr of Shoreham’s Champlain Orchards.
Nevertheless, Suhr and other Vermont apple growers are expecting an outstanding harvest in 2015.
“We have probably our largest crop ever, but we won’t know until it’s fully harvested,” Suhr said.
Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association, confirmed Suhr’s optimistic prediction.
“We’re anticipating a good crop, probably one of the best we’ve had in four or five years,” Justis said. “We were worried about the hot temperatures earlier in September, but since things have cooled off we’ve been kind of thrilled at the prospects. We’re loving it right now. The colder weather just gives us a little bit more breathing room for being able to get the crop in.”
Table apples like McIntosh need cool nights to get the red color that brings premium prices, Justis explained. But the first 19 days of September were the warmest on record for the Champlain Valley, according to Andy Nash of the National Weather Service in Burlington. So it’s no wonder that the recent “plunge” to normal temperatures has brought a collective sigh of relief to apple growers around Vermont.
Justis attributed this year’s above-average yield to a number of factors. Apples tend to bear more heavily in alternate years, and because there have been lighter crops the past several years, this is a year in which trees are naturally likely to produce more heavily.
Also, soaking June rains — the Northeast Regional Climate Center rates it the second-wettest June ever recorded in the Champlain Valley — can bring fungal diseases like apple scab. But this year the crop looks clean and all that rain has gone to create bigger fruit on more bountiful trees, said Justis. Most Vermont orchards use IPM (integrated pest management) to manage pests and diseases, and Justis gives huge credit to the ways that Vermont apple growers use sophisticated IPM tools, such as the Cornell University Network for Environmental and Weather Application (NEWA), which allows growers to closely monitor rainfall, growing degree days and temperature to grow top fruit in ways that are ecologically sensitive.
“It’s worth a lot,” said Justis, in reference to the NEWA program and its impact on orchard productivity.
Over three-fourths of Vermont’s apples come from Addison County, where the soils and proximity to Lake Champlain have made for ideal growing conditions.
“The June rain was very helpful to us,” Suhr said late last week. “It came after the fruit was already growing, and it helped the cell walls expand. The biggest thing that’s been helping us this past week are the colder nights. We need sunlight and we need cold nights to color our McIntosh and other varieties, but we were having 90-degree heat and warm nights. Things have been improving greatly this past week. Some fruit dropped prematurely because of the heavy crop load and the heat, but we’re still hopeful for a record crop.”
Champlain Orchards has been harvesting on average about 80,000 bushels a season, but this year Suhr expects to harvest over 100,000.
Suhr attributes some of this year’s increase in production to the good — if occasionally nail biting — growing season and some to expanded acreage. Champlain Orchards now harvests some 250 acres of fruit trees (including pears, peaches, plums and nectarines), with about 225 of those acres in apples.
Champlain Orchards has also expanded its storage facility, making room for an additional 58,000 bushels of storage. Although most of Champlain’s storage is for its own fruit, a few smaller orchards also use Champlain’s storage facility to store fruit for making cider.
Expansion into hard cider is adding an additional boost to the orchard’s profitability, while allowing it to maintain its “Eco-Apple” certification as a sustainable grower.
“It’s allowed us to utilize our crop fully,” said Suhr. “We don’t have to pack our fresh apples out at a 90-percent-plus pack-out rate to make the economics work here. So we’re not forced to have a spray regime or a management regime where we’re only taking the best fruit. It’s nice to have some leeway and be able to route some of our fruit that’s not blemish free to our hard cider and recoup value there. It’s allowing us to use more of our crop.”
Suhr said that although the orchard ventured into hard cider about six years ago, it’s given that aspect of its operation considerably more energy over the past three years. Champlain Orchards now has its own line of hard ciders that it makes and bottles on site, including the original Pruner’s Pride label, a newer Champlain Orchards Cidery label, along with its dessert wine–like ice ciders. Champlain Orchards Vermont Sparkling Ice Cider won the 2014 gold medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
“We’re most proud of the hard cider at the moment,” said Suhr. “We have a can that’s ‘Mac and Maple,’ where we are donating 3.5 percent of the proceeds to 350.org, the climate awareness organization that Bill McKibben started.”
As with many enterprising Vermont businesses, Champlain Orchards wears many hats: hard cider, sweet cider, pies and other cooked apple products, a year-round farm market, pick-your-own fruit trees, wagon rides. But its main business is growing apples to eat, which it distributes itself to grocery stores and quantity buyers like schools and hospitals throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
Shoreham’s Sentinel Pine Orchards, which has 210 of its over 520 acres in apple production, is also looking at a solid harvest — despite the curve balls Mother Nature has thrown its way.
“It was hot in May, it was wet in June, kind of normal in July and terribly hot August into September, as we know, when the 93s really sucked the color of our fruit,” said second-generation owner Whitney Blodgett. “We were semi-panicked and all chomping at the bit, but here we go. With the colder weather, it’s becoming normal. We’re full steam ahead now.”
Blodgett expects to pick well over 200,000 bushels of apples. But because his business concentrates almost entirely on table fruit, he expects to pack around 100,000 bushels, which is an average harvest for Sentinel Pine.
“We grow for wholesale, so it’s a higher standard,” Blodgett said. “When we pack, we select only the best fruit.”
Sentinel Pine wholesales almost all of its crop through a fruit broker in Boston, which then distributes the fruit, largely to the Boston market. Two-thirds of Sentinel Pine’s trees are McIntosh, the fruit most popular for those consumers. Other varieties grown at Sentinel Pine include Macoun, Empire, Spartan and Cortland. Sentinel Pine also sells gift boxes of its Vermont apples nationwide, especially to consumers in regions where warmer climates make Macs hard to grow. Apples that don’t make the grade — an apple with any blemish or bruise, however small — can go to cider.
For Sentinel Pine, the demand for apples from Vermont’s hard cider makers has filled an important gap in the market created when companies like mega–juice manufacturer Mott’s switched to using concentrate from China.
“We’ve sold apples for juice or cider from the beginning, as a necessity,” Blodgett said. “Our big outsource used to go to Mott’s out of western New York, but they’ve shut down. Now everything is frozen concentrate from China.”
The hard cider boom has also helped to make the apple business more dependably profitable in other ways. Over the past 10 years, said Blodgett, demand for apples in the hard cider market has brought up the per-bushel price of fruit considerably.
Looking ahead to next spring, Blodgett says he’ll be installing a new drip line irrigation system, where in the past he’s used overhead irrigation. And he’ll be continuing to add new trees and plant his orchard more densely.
Not surprisingly, given the heat Vermont apples and apple growers took this September, Blodgett has his eye on new McIntosh varieties that redden earlier in the summer, before they mature.
“There’s new McIntosh strains we’re going to be planting next year — 6,000 Ruby Red Macs,” said Blodgett. “We’re pretty encouraged because these Ruby Reds, they’re bright, pure red in July. They’re not mature … but they’re red. Of course, we won’t harvest till maturity. But the red color might not be such a big deal with these new McIntosh strains.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
KAYLA ROORDA PACKAGES apple pies at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham last week. The orchard has seen a very productive crop of apples this year.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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