The late August hot spell might not have consumers thinking of apple picking -- usually an autumn pastime -- but it's an early season and some varieties are already picked while others will be ready early, Washington County growers said.

On Tuesday, Matt Martin of Minneapolis and his two young daughters were at Afton Apple Orchard in Denmark Township, where about 17,000 apple trees are in different stages of growth and production. The Martins plucked tart McIntosh beauties on a high spot among the rolling hills.

Here, Martin and other customers are finding more of a choice than at many apple farms outside of Washington County, where yields are down or wiped out.

It hasn't been a good year for the apple crop nationwide, with hail, spring freezes, high wind and other bad weather hurting production. Store prices are expected to rise because fewer apples were produced.

But most of Washington County's 10 orchards have fared better than those in other states and even the west metro, local farmers said last week.

Still, it's been a mixed bag here as far as yields, they agreed.

Some apples at Afton Apple are early, and some are right on time, said Cindy Femling of the family-owned farm. Paulared, Red Baron, State Fair and Beacon apples all were early, she said.

"Some of our early varieties were a light crop, but we've got a really heavy bumper crop on other varieties," she said.

Weather extremes, with a warm spring that hung on and the hot summer, brought on the early harvest, she said.

"Typically, apple blossom would be the beginning of May, around Mother's Day, and this year, we had blossom at the beginning of April, a month early," Femling said.

March was balmy, too, but two days of frost in April reduced output, said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the Minnesota Grown Program at the state Agriculture Department.

"It's early because we had such an early spring and everything got off to an early start," he said. "The warm March weather meant that we had a lot of apples that were vulnerable to that April frost. In some places, that significantly reduced the amount of apples being harvested. On other farms it didn't have as big of an impact, so it really varied from place to place."

Spring bloom is a delicate time for apple trees, and when the frost came in early April, the Femlings of Afton Apple and Bill Jacobson of Pine Tree Orchards in White Bear Lake rented helicopters to keep the air churning above and between the trees, trying to keep cold air from settling to the ground. Other growers lit fires.

Chris Aamodt, a Stillwater grower, said he prayed.

"I think we all were praying for two sleepless nights," said Femling, who kept going outside in the night anxiously checking temperatures.

A couple of small orchards in Washington County and some in southern Minnesota were totally wiped out. Femling estimated that yields in most Washington County orchards are down by about a third.

But the fruit that did grow turned out to be really nice, Aamodt and others said.

The helicopter strategy apparently worked for Pine Tree in White Bear Lake, which ended up with nearly a full crop, Jacobson said. But another orchard the family owns, in Preston, Minn., lost about a quarter of its apple crop, Jacobson said.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Aamodt's workers picked Honeycrisp apples about three weeks ahead of schedule, because they were ready to fall to the ground. This year, Honeycrisps won't be available for consumers to pick but will be sold in Aamodt's barn, he said.

Each year, his family-owned orchard has two crops: a pick-your-own and a second crop that workers pick for sale in the barn, located along Manning Avenue, north of Hwy. 36.

"With pick-your-own, we have a good crop," Aamodt said. "But with it being so early, things are happening earlier, so we're already through a bunch of apple varieties that we would otherwise be picking right now. And with a bunch of orchards not having pick-your-own, or a very limited supply, I have a feeling our pick-your-own season is going to end a lot earlier than normal.

"If people want to pick their own, they better get out in early September," Aamodt said. "Usually, we finish up by Oct. 1. But this year I think we'll finish by at least the third week in September."

It's not only his orchard that won't have the wildly popular Honeycrisp apples for picking. Consumers will likely be hard pressed to even find Minnesota-grown Honeycrisps in grocery stores.

Because most Honeycrisps in the stores will come from out-of-state, consumers who want them from Minnesota farmers should head out to local orchards and farmers' markets to buy some that have been picked already.

Consumers can also check with individual orchards to see what's available.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038