PERU — An early bloom, followed by frost and a dry summer, has led to early reports of a smaller-than-usual apple crop.
Mason Forrence of Forrence Orchards said crews started to pick early season varieties such as Paula Reds, Ginger Golds and Jersey Macs in mid-August. They just started to pick other varieties of McIntosh apples during the last week of August.
“Growing started way too early due to the warm spring we had,” Forrence said.
That was followed by some frost in the month of April, just before full bloom. There is some scarring from frost, but not as much as if the trees had been at full bloom.
“We were just warm enough during the cold spell in April. There were more losses in western New York,” he said.
The trees reached full bloom in early May, about a week or two earlier than usual.
The early bloom resulted in an early harvest, he said. As a result, the fruit doesn’t get as much benefit from the cool fall nights that cause Macintosh apples to turn the deep red for which they are noted.
“Until we get some cold nights, it’s (deep red) not going to be there,” he said.
There were also smaller hail storms, Forrence said, but those didn’t cause as much damage as they have in the past. Of more concern was an overly dry summer.
All those conditions led to less vibrant reds and smaller fruit, he said.
Harvest will probably last through mid-October, Forrence said.
“It all hinges on the weather and how long the fruit hangs on the trees,” he said.
There is still a lot of fruit on some trees that have already been picked once. The longer the apples stay on the branches, the more likely they will reach a size where they can be packaged.
While the conditions resulted in smaller, slightly less red color, Forrence said he thinks this year’s crop is sweeter and less tart than usual, because of the extra sunshine.
The New York Apple Association issued a news release that stated the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast on Aug. 10 predicted a New York harvest of 14 million boxes, down 54 percent from the state’s five-year average of 30.7 million boxes. The U.S. crop forecast of 192 million boxes is down 15 percent from its five-year average.
The blame was placed on spring frost or summer hail, and sometimes both, across most parts of the country.
Prices are expected to be higher because the national crop is smaller.
New York Apple Association President Jim Allen urged people to support apple growers in New York.
“This year puts a spotlight on the kinds of pressures that our growers have to deal with year in, year out,” he said. “They deserve our respect and support, don’t you think?”
Forrence Orchards has 210 Jamaicans, augmented by some local workers, at work on the harvest. They are instructed to look for the redder apples, and those that are at least 2 ½ inches in size.
The crews receive $10.75 an hour. Forrence said it’s more expensive to pay an hourly wage, but if they paid by the piece, crews would take too many of the smaller apples that might improve with additional time on the trees.
Many have years of experience. Alphanso Merchant has worked at the orchard since 1976 and is now a crew boss in charge of 13 men and a tractor driver.
The workers are taught to gently cup the fruit and roll their wrist so the stem remains intact. That helps the fruit stay fresh longer.
Sylvester Evans was emptying his harvest pouch into a bin. He gingerly placed the bag atop the other apples and gently let them out of the bag so they wouldn’t get bruised.
“Macs have a very thin skin. They bruise very easily,” Forrence said.
The fruit at the top of the trees has better color, Forrence said, but the height makes it harder to pick. He said the crews are taught to look at the apple like the sun, from the top, so they can identify the brightest fruit.
The orchard received about 2½ inches of rain Tuesday night. That will be of extreme benefit to the fruit still on the trees.
“The trees grab that moisture and feed the fruit,” he said.
Moving forward, Forrence said, the ideal weather conditions would feature daytime temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s and nighttime temperatures in the high 30s and 40s.
Forrence Orchards features many varieties of apples, including several versions of McIntosh. The majority of the latter is the Rogers Red McIntosh.
“It stores very well,” Forrence said.
Varieties such as Cortland and Empire will be among the last to be harvested, probably in the next three to four weeks.
While some apples get packed for market right away, others are placed in cold storage so there is a supply year-round. They are stored in airtight rooms where the oxygen is removed to put the apples to “sleep” so they stay fresh much longer.
Forrence said they grow apples on about 1,200 acres, although about 200 are out of use each season. In some years, that land is planted with other crops such as corn to help the soil, while in other years they plant new trees for future generations.
It takes about four years for new trees to reach peak production, he said.
The newer dwarf trees are easier to harvest, Forrence said, but require additional support because the roots don’t run as deep. They are supported by trellis-like support structures.
Of the 70 bins harvested Tuesday, 16 of them featured fruit so small it can only be used for cider.
Each box of apples is marked so it can be tracked as to who picked it and the part of the orchard where it grew. That’s crucial information in this age of increased awareness of issues such as salmonella, Forrence said.
Cornell University is doing some research at the orchard. That includes testing applications that can help fruit stay on the tree longer or help thin the crop to help achieve a more consistent size and quality.
Tropical Storm Irene did knock down a number of the trellis systems that hold the dwarf trees, but crews were able to rapidly replace those.
“If it had come a couple weeks later it would have knocked down a lot more fruit,” Forrence said.
Email Dan Heath