A cool, wet spring got this year’s apple crop off to a slow start, pushing back the season for pick-your-own customers by about two weeks.
But the delay may turn out to have been fortunate, according to south metro area apple growers.
The extreme heat in late August, when many apple varieties normally would be ripe, put people off from the notion of picking. “It’s been so darn hot, too hot to be outside,” said Cindy Femling, an owner of Afton Apple Orchard in Hastings.
In addition to physical discomfort, the hot weather kept people from flipping the pages on their mental calendars.
“You get that fall feeling in the air and people think apples. That didn’t happen this August,” said Kathy Parranto, owner of Applewood Orchard in Lakeville. Parranto said that through the first week in September her customer traffic has been about 25 percent below what she has come to expect in the early part of the picking season.
Now, with cooler weather arriving and more apples ready to pick, growers are expecting a rebound from last year’s dismal season.
“With the cool nights, the apples are starting to color,” Femling said. Production of most varieties appears to be about average, and some varieties where the yield is light are making up for that in apple size, she said.
Some early varieties like Paul Red and Zestar are already available at Afton and other area orchards, and other varieties are on the way for people to pick or buy at farm stands.
“Compared to a normal year this is probably going to be a normal year for most growers,” said Paul Hugunin, a coordinator for the state agriculture department’s Minnesota Grown program. “Compared to last year, it should be a very, very good year.” Hugunin advises customers to call ahead before going out to an orchard, especially if they are looking for a particular variety.
In 2012, an abnormally warm spring and nasty early frost got orchards throughout Minnesota off to a rough start. As the season progressed, hail storms and poorly timed rains created more challenging conditions for growers. Last year’s crop was about half the size of a typical year, according to the state agriculture department.
“It was a very, very sad year,” said Barbara Thompson, who with her husband, Gene, owns and operates Thompson’s Hillcrest Orchard in Elko New Market. After getting off to slow start, the 1,000-tree orchard suffered damage from a storm in August. About 45 newly planted SweeTango trees were uprooted while stiff winds stripped apples from other trees, she said.
This year has been largely drama-free. “We have an awesome crop,” Thompson said. Early varieties like Zestar and Chestnut are now available for picking. Like most orchards, Thompson’s doesn’t allow customers to pick their own SweeTangos but sells them “pre-picked” by its workers.
The apple crop at Sogn Valley Orchard in Dennison is better than a year ago, when poor growing conditions forced owner John Zimmer to close it to customers. The orchard doesn’t allow customers to pick their own apples but began selling pre-picked Zestar, State Fair, Wealthy and Paula Red varieties earlier this month.
“Each variety has its own characteristics,” Zimmer said. Overall, he said he’s expecting an average year.
In addition to weather, the fortunes of the Minnesota Vikings appear to affect orchards’ business, according to Thompson and Parranto.
“If the Vikings are playing on a Sunday, you can always tell after the game is over, because that’s when our business picks up,” Thompson said.
The same thing happens if the home team plays poorly, Parranto said. “It’s gotten to be kind of a joke among us that if the Vikings are losing we’ll see more business.”