Scarlet color highlights county’s apple harvest

ADDISON COUNTY — Midway through the 2017 harvest, Addison County apple growers are expecting a good to average season with one area orchardist calling it a “bumper crop.”
 This year’s crop has been blessed and hampered with early rains and some spots of hail. Temperatures in the 80s and 90s the past few weeks have orchardists hoping the hot streak ends so apples can be picked before they over-ripen and drop.
“When you deal with Mother Nature, you deal with whatever she dishes you out,” noted Boyer’s Orchard owner Genny Boyer, of Monkton.
Nevertheless, cool weather in mid-to-late August delivered what long-time apple grower Scott Douglas, of Shoreham’s Douglas Orchards, described as “the best early-season color I’ve seen in 46 years.”
The beautiful coloring has been a boon to harvesting Macs and other red varieties because pickers could more easily pick a tree at one go, orchardists explained. And for anyone driving past the county’s orchards, this year’s scarlet apples have created a panoramic feast for the eye.
As for the health of this year’s apple crop, trees are generally in good shape. After last year’s drought, ample rains this May, June and July benefited tree health and plumped out the apples, said Happy Valley Orchard owner Stan Pratt. Pratt grows apples in Middlebury and New Haven, around 34 acres total.
“Mostly the rain was a plus,” agreed Douglas. “Certainly better than the drought last year.” Douglas said that Douglas Orchard expects to harvest around 30,000 bushels this year, a significant boost from last year.
The flip side to all that rain was scab, a moisture-loving fungus that can affect both leaves and fruit.
“I’ve talked to many, many people in the orchard business, and we’ve all picked up a little bit of scab. There’s no way around it this year. That’s just the way it is,” said Boyer.
Boyer said her orchard also came in for a bit of hail earlier in the growing season when the apples were still small, but it did little damage. Boyer’s Orchard has 40 acres of fruit trees and bushes, close to 14 of which are in apples, and she sells to customers who come directly to her orchard. Those customers, she said, aren’t as concerned with small blemishes once they understand the taste isn’t affected.
For Whitney Blodgett of Sentinel Pine Orchards in Shoreham, however, light hail damage earlier in the season means some apples can’t go for top dollar. Blodgett sells almost all of the apples from his 500-acre orchard (210 in apples) wholesale for the table market. A tiny spot on the skin can put an apple out of the running for the extra fancy grade Blodgett seeks.
Like most apple growers interviewed for this article, Blodgett called 2017 an average year. Last year’s drought dropped Blodgett’s production to 92,000 bushels. This year he expects to harvest around 100,000 bushels.
Blodgett is a second-generation apple grower. His father started the orchard in 1964 and Blodgett took over in 1999. He said he’s been noticing over the past several years that the growing season is shifting, he believes due to global warming. Twenty-five years ago harvest typically started in mid-September. Now it generally starts one to two weeks earlier, he observed.
Because most Addison County apples are picked by immigrant workers from Jamaica, the timing of the harvest is important to lining up the work force efficiently. Shifts in temperature can cause the harvest to progress too slowly or too quickly to make best use of the workers’ time.
Orchardists are hoping for a shift to cooler weather before too many apples ripen more quickly than they can be picked. While the market for drops and culls has picked up over the past several years because of the growth of the hard cider industry, growers always hope to harvest top-quality fruit.
While all apple growers interviewed for this article are continuing to keep their eyes glued to the weather station, Champlain Orchards Bill Suhr alone called 2017 “absolutely a bumper year.”
Up to now, Suhr said Champlain Orchards has harvested around 90,000 bushels of apples a year. This year, he expects to harvest closer to 115,000 bushels. Champlain Orchards grows around 250 acres of apples (and other fruit trees) on 500 acres of land.
Part of Champlain Orchard’s increase in production Suhr attributes to new plantings, young trees maturing enough to produce sizable amounts of fruit and to hitting the “on” year in the apple trees’ every-other-year cycle of heavier and smaller crops. But he also attributes what he called “great weather” for his location.
Suhr is happy, too, at the business he’s seeing coming out to pick apples. (Champlain Orchards, Boyer’s Orchard, Happy Valley Orchards and Douglas Orchard all offer U-pick.)
“Families are coming out for the wagon rides and the music we’ve been having on the weekends,” Suhr said, “and that’s an honor — that they’re choosing to come out with their precious weekend time. They seem to be having fun, and they’re focusing on what we hope is nourishing food. People seem to be celebrating local food.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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