Local News

Apple picking: Hot dry summer produces smaller crop, sweeter fruit

By Gaen Murphree
Apples being harvested in central Vermont 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 is down by half to two-thirds, according to apple growers interviewed for this article. 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, although lack of rain has yielded smaller harvests across Vermont and throughout the Northeast, many Vermont 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.
The harvest yield has varied between Vermont orchards, too.
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 and another 20 acres in New Haven.
Pratt reported “a lot of apples this year,” especially  at their Middlebury site.
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 heavier this year 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 also tend to bear more heavily in alternate years, though this propensity varies among different varieties.
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.
“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.
Reporter Gaen Murphree can be reached at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

Photo by Trent Campbell
Orville McLean harvests apples at Douglas Orchards in Shoreham.

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