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Apple orchards facing thinner crops

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • September 5, 2012 - 8:51 AM

Apple growers like Lin Deardorff are unwavering optimists, accepting whatever Mother Nature dishes out. And this year, orchard owners like him are weathering the worst.

"There's never been a year quite like this one," the Waconia grower said of his 30 years in the business. "Absolutely the worst [year], none to compare."

A warm winter followed by a sudden April freeze devastated and even completely wiped out apple crops across the west metro this year. It's forced growers, now in the prime of the popular apple-picking season, to increase other orchard events and resell apples grown elsewhere in Minnesota and Wisconsin to recoup losses.

The scene is reflected nationwide after hail, spring freezes, high winds and other bad weather hammered production, sending prices up at both stores and orchards.

"The warm March weather meant that we had a lot of apples that were vulnerable to that April frost," said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the Minnesota Grown Program at the state Agriculture Department. "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."

Instead of a hail storm hitting a small area, however, the warm spring followed by a late frost affected Minnesota growers across much of the metro.

In the east metro, Washington County orchard owners lost about a third of their apple crops despite attempts to save them from the April frost, taking drastic measures such as renting helicopters to keep the air churning above and between trees, or lighting fires.

In the west metro, Deardorff used butane tanks and air blast blowers on his Waconia trees to try to circulate air. But the damage was done.

The 500 bushels of Honeycrisp apples they usually harvest are down to 100 bushels this year.

In Minnetrista, Minnetonka Orchards had half of its apple crop wiped out. The same is true farther west in Montrose, at Fall Harvest Orchard, where owner Curt Peterson had entire varieties such as Fireside and Connell Red completely killed off. Peterson says it's the worst growing year for him since 2000.

"We're going to run out of you-pick apples really fast," he said. "You can't go out and buy apples and glue them to the trees."

The next best thing is reselling apples from Minnesota orchards not affected as badly, such as the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.

Orchards also opened earlier this year due to an early picking season. At Apple Jack Orchards in Delano, Mike Dekarski said they started picking apples in July -- the earliest he's ever picked apples in 30 years of business. Dekarski, president of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association, advises consumers to bump up their calendar since apples are ready about two to three weeks earlier.

"There's plenty of fruit," he said. "But we've never sold Honeycrisp on Labor Day, and we will this year."

Also expect apple purchases to take a bigger bite out of your wallet.

Deardorff, though, isn't letting the worst season in three decades get him down. He said he's still optimistic that apple enthusiasts will show up to pick Haralson, SweeTango, Zestar! and other popular varieties -- or to see other orchard attractions, such as a winery.

"We have more than just apples," he said. "We think people will still have a positive experience if they come out here."

Staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this report.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib

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