The bushel baskets are stacked up outside the tidy, white cottage that serves as command central at Applewood Orchard, waiting for pick-your-own customers heading out to the Lakeville farm's 6,000 apple trees.
This year it's likely to take more effort for people to come away with their baskets full.
An abnormally warm spring and nasty early frost got orchards like Applewood off to a rough start on what has proved to be a challenging growing season. The result is slim pickings at apple farms in the south metro area as well as other parts of Minnesota.
The damage to apple crops throughout the state varied tremendously from farm to farm, said Paul Hugunin, a coordinator for state Agriculture Department's Minnesota Grown program. "Our advice to people is to call ahead," he said.
"We're hanging in there," said Kathy Parranto, Applewood's owner. The orchard's overall crop is about half of last year's, but Parranto said she's thankful that production of Honeycrisp and Zestar, two of the most popular varieties, was relatively strong.
Afton Apple Orchard's crop of early varieties like Paula Red, McIntosh and Zestar is down by about 50 percent, but the yield on others, like Honeycrisp, Haralson and Regent, is abundant, said Cindy Femling, an owner of the family-run business.
Femling said she was concerned that people might not come to buy or pick apples, put off by previous reports of the April frost, but said customer traffic has been better than expected.
"We've been irrigating our raspberries heavily for the last few weeks," she said, and the Hastings orchard hopes the berries and eventually pumpkins will draw more customers.
Parranto said Applewood is supplementing its small harvest with apples from growers outside Minnesota, but even that is proving to be difficult. "The shortage is spread throughout the whole Midwest," she said.
Although apple production nationwide is expected to be down this year, the East and Midwest clearly felt the brunt of a brutal growing season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Michigan, a major producer, is expecting an 85 percent drop in its crop. The projected decline in Wisconsin is more than 60 percent.
In Minnesota, the overall crop is expected to be down about 50 percent, said John Jacobson, owner of Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake and a director of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association.
"It was a hit-or-miss situation," he said of the varied impact of adverse growing conditions. Trees on hilltops or bluffs came through the April frost better than those in low-lying areas. Pine Tree hired a helicopter to keep the air over its trees circulating and keep the frost from settling in.
"A degree or two or three can make a big difference," Hugunin said. In addition to topography, earlier varieties of apples tended to be hit the hardest by the spring frost because their blooms were further along. Newer varieties in some areas also were more severely affected by the hot, dry conditions this summer because those trees' root systems were not as well-established, he said.
The rain, when it did come this summer, created problems for Brand Farms, according to Aaron Brand, who manages the orchard in Farmington.
"The rains were poorly timed and torrential," Brand said. That resulted in standing water that made it difficult to get out into the orchards to work. Brand said he has had enough apples to supply four farmers markets, but as of late August didn't have enough to sell at his farm stand. He said the stand will eventually open.
Joe Wagner said he thought the apple farm he runs in Jordan with his brother Jim had escaped frost damage because of the orchard's high elevation, but that proved not to be the case. "We got nailed. The crop is very light," he said. Wagner's production of Fireside apples was so meager that he stopped spraying those trees for insects. "It wasn't worth it," he said.
John Zimmer made the decision to close his apple farm, Sogn Valley Orchard, to customers in late May. He said the combination of early spring, frost, wind and hail devastated his orchard in Dennison, about 10 miles southeast of Northfield in Goodhue County.
"It was the right decision," Zimmer said. "All I have now is hope for next year."
Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282