Orchards see smaller but sweeter apples at end of dry growing season

ADDISON COUNTY — Apples being harvested in Addison County this fall are smaller and overall yield is down, following trends throughout the Northeast, say local growers.
But local consumers can expect plenty of beautiful apples with some added zing, as the lack of rain and hotter temperatures have intensified flavor and sweetness.
“Weather’s been a big issue,” said fourth generation apple grower Scott Douglas, who together with his brother Bob owns and operates Douglas Orchard and Cider Mill in Shoreham. “It was hot and obviously really dry. It still is really dry. So the size isn’t quite what it should be. Our crop’s probably down at least 30 percent from last year mainly because of the hot dry weather.”
Rainfall as tracked by apple growers interviewed for this article is down by half to two-thirds. If growers typically like to see at least four to six inches a month in the growing season, this year precipitation has come in closer to one and a half to two inches.
The dry weather is having much the same effect around the state.
“We’re looking at a lighter crop than last year partly because we had such a heavy crop 2015 and then partly because of the dryness,” said Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Fruit Tree Growers Association. “But it doesn’t look like we’re going to be down appreciably, probably 15 percent is what we’re looking at statewide.”
The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets ranks apples as the state’s largest fruit crop, worth $12 million-$15 million annually, with an additional $10 million-$12 million a year from products like apple cider and apple sauce.
In 2015, the county’s apple growers contended against one of the wettest Junes on record but brought in a bumper crop — what Justis called one of the best of the past four or five years.
This year, though lack of rain has yielded smaller harvests across Vermont and throughout the Northeast, many Addison County growers are still counting their blessings in comparison to neighbor growers across state lines. Orchards in some parts of western New York faced repeated hailstorms. And elsewhere in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, many growers faced what’s called a “short crop” when late spring freezes damaged or destroyed blossoms.
Stan Pratt, co-owner with wife Mary Pratt of Happy Valley Orchard, reported an excellent yield despite the dry weather. Pratt grows apples on 14 acres in Middlebury — where Happy Valley also has its retail outlet and U-pick trees — and another 20 acres in New Haven, where it grows apples mostly for hard cider.
Pratt reported “a lot of apples this year”, especially their Middlebury site — “a great crop of apples, maybe the best ever.”
Pratt expects to bring in 18,000 to 20,000 apples and said in an average year he brings in “a little less than that.”
Because of differences in microclimate and the varieties grown at the two sites, Pratt said that last year was a heavier yield on his New Haven acreage and this year heavier in Middlebury.
“It’s nice to have different locations, too,” he said. “That helps. Next year we’ll have a lot of Macs over there but fewer here and not as many Spies.”
Apples tend to bear more heavily in alternate years, though this propensity varies among different varieties.
Happy Valley offers 70-plus varieties and will be open for U-pick through the end of October.
Like most Addison County orchards, Pratt has mostly Macintosh trees, followed by Cortlands and Empires, but offers a range of popular and heirloom varieties.
“We have Zestar, Honeycrisp. Today we’ve been picking some Twenty Ounce cooking apple, we have a Pound Sweet, we also have a few Cox’s Orange Pippen, we have a few Spitzenburg, a few Westfield, a few Baldwin, we have the Wolf River, Keepsake.”
In Cornwall, Sunrise Orchards owners Barney and Christiana Hodges are seeing a smaller yield and smaller but tastier fruit.
Last year was a bumper crop with 175,000 bushels. A typical year’s harvest on Sunrise’s 200 acres might total around 140,000 bushels. This year they expect to see a yield 20 to 30 percent less than a typical year.
The Hodges have heard concerns from local consumers that the reduced yield in 2016 might mean that local orchards are “running out” but that is far from the case, they both emphasized.
Indeed the backroads ramble through Addison County required to research this article saw sweeping acres of dark red apples from acreage facing the Green Mountains to acreage facing the Adirondacks.
There’s an added bonus for apple eaters countywide from the extra heat and lack of rain, say the Hodges: more flavor.
“Our fruit quality and flavor is excellent,” said Barney Hodges. “What’s great about a Mac, for example, is its juxtaposition of tart to sweetness. That’s what makes Macs so flavorful. And with smaller fruit and less ‘volumous’ fruit, there’s a little bit more zing to the apple.”
Like other orchards across the state and county, Macs predominate at Sunrise. The Hodges raise about 65 percent Macs, about 30 percent Empires, Cortlands and Paula Reds, and the rest a cornucopia of popular and heirloom varieties for everything from fresh eating to hard cider.
Sunrise markets direct to store across Vermont and wholesales to places like Boston, New York City and Philadelphia through Red Tomato, a wholesaler that focuses on sustainability. Sunrise is Red Tomato’s largest supplier of apples.
Sunrise is also increasingly turning its attention toward raising apples for the hard cider market.
On sweeping acreage looking out toward Lake Champlain, overall yields are down at Douglas Orchards as well. In a typical year co-owners Scott and Bob Douglas bring in around 30,000 bushels. This year they expect closer to 20,000. Fruit size varies, said Scott Douglas, with good-sized fruit on trees that held less fruit overall and smaller fruit elsewhere because of the lack of rain.
The Douglases maintain 50 acres of apples, along with sundry acres of cherries, strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins on their 180 acres. Apples have been raised on the brothers’ acreage since their grandfather first introduced tree fruit to the family dairy farm back in the 1920s.
SCOTT DOUGLAS DRIVES a trailer full of apples through Douglas Orchards Tuesday morning.
Fifty percent of the Douglases’ trees are Macs. And like other U-pick orchards in Addison County they offer a range of varieties. Among the 15 kinds of apples Douglas lists are Macoun, Northern Spy, Mutsu, Spartan, Ginger Gold and Gala. Like many local orchardists, the Douglases grow Honeycrisps, one of the most popular apples in the current retail market, and one that brings a higher price but is harder to grow in local conditions and harder to pack and handle.
Although most of the Douglases’ apples are wholesaled through nearby Champlain Orchards, Scott Douglas said that U-pick remains an important part of their business.
“We’ve been offering U-pick at least the last 20 years if not longer,” he said. “A lot of people come back. They’ve been here before. They know where they want to go to pick what they want to pick. We don’t even have to tell them.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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