It's a payoff for the snowy winter and cool, wet spring.
Scott Wardell harvested Zestar! apples at the Montgomery Orchard, which he co-owns with his wife, Barb. The orchard, on Hwy. 99 in Montgomery, Minn., lets visitors pick their own apples, walk a nature trail or corn maze, and watch cidermaking. This year’s harvest is expected to be better than last year’s.
The first Minnesota apples of the season are showing up at roadside stands and grocery stores, and despite the tumultuous summer weather, there will be more for everybody.
"It looks to me like a very nice crop," said David Bedford, an apple breeder in the University of Minnesota's Horticultural Science Department. "The flavor seems very good. I'd consider this to be a good year."
Minnesota growers are planning to harvest almost 18 percent more apples than they did in 2010, when a frost in early May -- during an otherwise remarkably early-starting and long-lasting growing season -- nipped many of the state's orchards. Across the Midwest, production is expected to be up a remarkable 49 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationwide, there should be 2 percent more apples this year than last.
In Minnesota, the ripening schedule has been running about a week to 10 days later than normal this year, slowed by a chilly and wet spring, said Paul Hugunin, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Minnesota Grown program coordinator. But SweeTangos, hard to find last year in their first season on the market, are expected to be widely available as soon as next week, following the arrival of Zestar! this week and the wildly popular Honeycrisp at midmonth. The traditional later-season varieties, from Haralsons to the season-ending Fireside, are also expected to march triumphantly to market through late September into October.
Hardy, tardy, sweet and tart
After the gloomy start to the season, orchards endured July's heat, a dry August and a lot of damaging wind throughout the summer. June, July and August were the 11th-warmest "meteorological summer" on record in the Twin Cities. But the apples' imminent success actually goes back to last winter -- consistently cold but not too cold, with plenty of moisture, which helps apples grow bigger, strengthens tree branches and helps trees produce a lot of sugar-producing leaves.
"Apple trees are kind of stable," Bedford noted. "Once they set a course, the weather between bloom and harvest doesn't affect them too much."
Summer daytime heat doesn't hurt apples if they can also experience cool nights, Bedford added. That's what Minnesota usually gets in August, making it more advantageous for apples than, say, Kansas, he said.
While Minnesota's apple varieties have been bred to endure cold, the region's climate has warmed, particularly at night. Average low temperatures for the Twin Cities and for La Crosse, Wis., near one of the state's prime apple-growing regions, rose more than daily highs in the recent revision of "normal" temps.
That might mean Minnesota growers will be able to grow Gala apples, now grown in more southerly states and Washington, with some success in the future. But it doesn't mean the state's iconic apples will fade away in favor of more tropical fruits.
"I believe our climate is changing -- don't get me wrong," Bedford said. "But it's gradual enough that we're not changing our breeding program.
"All it takes is one year out of the next 10 to go below the temperature you've planted for, and you're dead," he added.
"It's going to take a few more decades to say we can grow peaches in Minnesota."
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646