Good Weather, Pollination Lead Fruit Growers to Predict Bountiful Crop this Year

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 8th, 2015, by Tom Relihan

This year’s apple season is shaping up to be a serious haul for the area’s fruit growers, with prime weather conditions and successful pollination putting plenty of apple pies and streams of hard cider on the horizon.

Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield said the weather so far this year has provided prime growing conditions for the farm’s apple, peach and cherry trees. The farm has seen plenty of rain to keep the trees healthy and a two-week stretch of dry, sunny weather brought bees and other pollinators out in force.

“It’s looking like a really healthy crop,” Clark said. So healthy, indeed, that he and his farm workers have ventured out into the orchards to trim fruit off the tree branches to prevent them from becoming too heavy and snapping.

“This year, it’ll be an above-average harvest,” he said. “Two years ago there was such a heavy crop that we couldn’t get them all off the trees before they fell. The year before, there was a lot of frost and the trees responded by overproducing the following year.”

Clark said he was worried about the farm’s peach crop earlier in the season, due to the long winter that saw record cold temperatures, but the trees had a “gorgeous bloom” despite those conditions.
He said the farm expects to put out about 8,000 bushels this year, up from about 5,000 last year. The record harvest in 2013 was about 9,000 bushels, and the year before that was just 3,500 bushels, Clark said.

“If it gets too cold, you can get bud injury, but we had a really great peach sprout and so far it looks like the harvest will be great,” he said.

Clark said many of the home apple growers that often call him for advice have also been reporting good crops.

“It seems like it’s across the board,” he said.

New England Apple Association executive director Bar Lois Weeks said most other orchards in the state have also thinned their crop this year since the “June drop” — a natural phenomenon during which trees shed apples on their own to ensure the rest get adequate nutrition. Failing to thin the trees, she said, leaves the risk of producing apples that are much smaller in size than usual.

“There wasn’t quite enough drop, as is often the case, so there was lots of hand-thinning to do,” Weeks said.

Weeks said Massachusetts is now the top apple-producing state in New England.

Jon Clements of UMass Extension, who works at the university’s Cold Spring research orchard in Belchertown, said he has every reason to believe that this year’s crop will be above average.

“There hasn’t really been anything that’s had an adverse effect on it,” Clements said. “There was no spring frost, and the bloom was normal. We actually had a heavy bloom, there were lots of flowers. There was just no stress to the trees this year. There’s plenty of fruit out there.”

Clements said having an average-size crop one year, as was the case last season, gives orchards the potential for a heavy crop the next year.
“Next year might be a bit off, they might not come back with as good a bloom,” he said. “When there’s a heavy crop, the trees don’t form as many flower buds, but 2016 is a ways away, so I won’t speculate.”

At Apex Orchards in Shelburne, owner Tim Smith said his crop is shaping up much the same. He expects he will be able to pick about 15,000 apples this year, up from the 12,000 that were harvested last year. He said that volume is right on the mark for what his orchard should be expected to produce.

“We have a really good crop this year. It’s a good size crop and it’s sizing up well,” Smith said. “Everything’s been a go this season — we had really good pollination this spring and we got rain when we needed it.”

Smith said the farm produces a variety of apples that are picked at different times throughout August, September and October, so he is not worried about being unable to get them all down in time and has not increased the size of his picking crew.

“We’ve got the same size crew, and as long as nothing goes wrong with the weather we should be able to get it all in OK,” he said.

David Shearer of Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain said he was a bit nervous early in the season, but expects he will be able to harvest between 30,000 and 45,000 bushels — or 300,000 to 450,000 apples — this year. Last year, the farm produced the lower end of that figure.

“Last year, we were a bit lighter on the newer varieties that everyone wants, the Honeycrisps and the Macouns, but we’re quite happy with what’s coming along. It started out a bit iffy, but we did a good job thinning and they’re sizing up pretty well.”

Shearer said the orchard has already received potential orders for about 30,000 gallons of raw cider materials from hard-cider producers across the state and plans to press well over 100,000 gallons of sweet cider. He said the farm has also scaled up its retail operations and pick-your-own program.

“Barring any bad weather, we should see a really good crop,” Shearer said, noting that a thunderstorm was rolling in on the horizon as he spoke. “We just don’t want any hail, we could lose the whole thing in about 10 seconds if there’s hail.”

Weeks said there remains the chance of a powerful storm sweeping through the area and affecting the orchards. Maine has already seen some tough weather, she said.

“There’s always the chance of a storm at the end of the summer, but you can’t predict it or do much about it,” she said. “Growers are just always circumspect and rolling with the punches.”

Last week, severe weather brought golf ball-sized hail to the Boston area and smaller hail to other parts of the state.