Apple season starts slow but picks up

ENSLEY CALLUM PICKS apples at Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury this week. Callum, from Jamaica, is spending his sixth year working on the harvest at Happy Valley, which employs several Jamaicans on seasonal work permits each year.

(Curbside pickup) hasn’t been as busy as we thought it would be. Some customers have place orders, come to pick then up, and ended up coming inside anyway.
— Mary Pratt, Happy Valley Orchard

ADDISON COUNTY — The story of this year’s apple season has four chapters, so far: a dry summer, August rain, gorgeous pick-your-own weather, and COVID-19.
A minor summer drought contributed to more concentrated flavors, but enough moisture got into the ground by the start of harvest season to allow the fruit to “size up.” And September’s pleasant weekends provided extra encouragement for people to visit their local orchards for some outdoor pick-your-own fun.
At the same time, orchards are having to adapt their businesses to the ongoing presence of the pandemic.
“Mother nature has once again provided us with a wonderful crop that’s ready for you and your family,” wrote Vermont Fruit Tree Growers Association President Eric Boire on the organization’s website. “The rest of it, however, is going to look a little different.”
Health experts have said that the chances of food-borne transmission of COVID-19 are extremely low, and the public should not hesitate to purchase and eat apples, but customers who venture out to pick their own should wear masks, practice social distancing and follow state and local — and orchard — guidance.

“We’ve been quite busy this year,” said Bob Rogers of Woodman Hill Orchard in Vergennes. “We’ve sold through some of our varieties, and up to 90% of others.”
Other varieties are just now coming in, he said
“We just started picking Empires this past weekend, and two weeks ago we started picking Liberties.” 
For those less familiar with Liberties, they’re a McIntosh-style apple with red skin and juicy flesh whose flavor is considered well- balanced, though perhaps a tad sharper than other Mac-related varieties, according to Orange Pippin, an online tree fruit reference.
Woodman Hill is still picking the ever-popular Honey Crisp variety, “but I don’t know how long they will last,” Rogers said.
Rogers has around 300 trees on three acres. After last year’s heavy harvest, he expects 2020 to be a little lighter, as is often the case with apple cycles.
“But we’ve had enough to keep us busy,” he said. 
Woodman Hill sells most of its apples directly to customers, but it also sells some to Citizen Cider in Burlington.
“We do that in kind of a roundabout way by taking them to Happy Valley Orchard (in Middlebury),” Rogers explained.

Because of its central location and its accessibility to tractor trailers, Happy Valley collects cider apples from a handful of smaller local orchards and sends them on to Citizen, said Happy Valley co-owner Mary Pratt.
Happy Valley maintains 14 acres of orchard trees and a farm stand in Middlebury, plus another 25 acres in New Haven, which are mostly for cider. 
In total, both orchards are expecting to harvest around 8,000 bushels this year, Pratt said.
Early-ripening varieties were on the small side because of the drought, but later-season varieties are sizing up nicely, she said.
The Middlebury orchard will be open through Oct. 31. Pratt isn’t sure at this point how much PYO (pick your own) will be left, but the farm stand will remain open.
“We’ve definitely been busier than last year,” she added.
Happy Valley is offering curbside pickup this year. Customers can call in, tell the staff what they want and then come and pick it up.
“That hasn’t been as busy as we thought it would be,” Pratt said. “Some customers have place orders, come to pick then up, and ended up coming inside anyway.”

“The fruit quality has been fantastic, but some of our apples have ripened a month early,” said Bill Suhr, who owns Champlain Orchards in Shoreham and who purchased nearby Douglas Orchard and Cider Mill earlier this year.
Champlain Orchards maintains about 350 growing acres, each with 1,000 to 2,000 trees.
Early apples began arriving in August at Champlain, and by Sept. 25 the orchard had 28 different varieties of “eco apples” available.
Suhr had hoped to harvest about 150,000 bushels this year, but this past weekend — 85,000 bushels into the season — Champlain’s seasonal picking staff suffered an outbreak of COVID-19, leading to an indefinite shutdown of its PYO operation (see story, Page 1A).
With the orchard closed for PYO indefinitely, Suhr is not sure he’ll be able to get all of his apples harvested, but his main concern has been the health of his workers, he said. On Tuesday he said most of the affected workers were feeling fine and showing no symptoms of the disease.

When the Independent asked Pratt if there was anything about this apple season she thought it was important for readers to know, she didn’t skip a beat.
“People should feel comfortable buying apples from Champlain Orchards and they should continue patronizing them,” she said. “They’re wonderful people and they do everything right.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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