PRIME PICKING CONDITIONS
By TALIA GODFREY, For the Recorder, October 17, 2020
Hunting apples was an all-day affair for Nick Suter and Amber LaFrancis, of Ludlow, beginning when Suter’s two boys, 3 and 5 years old, disappeared into the rows of Apex Orchard in Shelburne Falls. With small hands just big enough to hold ripe Gala apples, they were just short enough to walk underneath the low-hanging branches.
“It was a spur of the moment decision to come, this is our first time here,” said Suter.
Neither Suter nor LaFrancis had been applepicking in a long time, and both said they were blown away with the breathtaking views. After an afternoon of apple-picking, the four went home with a full peck for seasonal pie-making.
“I take all the precautions and follow all the rules, but I’m not going to live my life in fear with my children,” said Suter, as his sons ran to peek through the trees at a passing tractor. Other than having to wear masks, Suter said they found the experience comfortable and enjoyable. As it was for Suter and Lafrancis, apple-picking has become a popular choice for a safe social activity this fall, bringing orchards across the state a high demand for pick-your-own apples never seen before.
“We got picked out of summer apples, which people don’t usually want, but this year they just wanted the activities and to do things outside,” said Al Rose, the fourth-generation owner of Red Apple Farm in Phillipston. “In our business, you need the weather to grow and to sell the crop. It’s about providing conditions for people to want to be outside. We’ve had almost no rain this year — that makes people want to come. No one wants to pick in the rain.”
Prime picking days feature conditions that Rose calls “The three c’s of apple season: cool, crisp and clear. They want to have to wear a sweater.”
According to Ben Clark, the fourth-generation farm owner of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, some weekends this year have had twice as many pickers as previous years. Clark says they’re having some of the biggest crowds they’ve ever seen.
“We get a lot of return customers who came in when they were kids and now they’re adults bringing their kids. The feeling is that applepicking is a family-friendly outdoor activity. People can feel a little normal with this tradition and they want to get outside,” said Clark.
Tim Smith, Apex Orchards owner of 40 years, attributes the increase to people’s concern about where their food is coming from: “Sales are up this year, people are very focused on buying locally and are very conscious about distance … more so than other years,” he said.
Apple season can last from the end of July into November, but most varieties open to the public for pick-your-own have a shorter picking window. At Clarkdale, pick-your-own apples are typically ready beginning the second week of September; they are usually finished by Columbus Day weekend. Pick-your-own at Apex starts and ends earlier, open from the last week of August until Halloween.
Both Rose and Clark mentioned that it’s been a great year for the apple crop in terms of both taste and color. “We got affected by dry weather so the size of some of the apples is a little smaller, but the flavor is outstanding because when there’s a lot of water, the sugars can concentrate more,” explained Clark.
At Red Apple Farm, Rose noted “The quality (of apples) is phenomenal this year, and the color (for) leaf-peeping is phenomenal this year. It’s unusual to see that. The supply was low, it wasn’t a big crop this year, to begin with.”
According to Smith, having had a particularly abundant apple crop last season, this season’s crop is small — about 75 percent of a normal yield.
“It’s just the natural layoff of trees,” said Smith, mentioning that Apex Orchard irrigates its trees so dryness h a s n’t been a problem.
Like most businesses, apple- picking looks different this year. Orchards have adapted to social distancing requirements by making the experience safe and efficient, some going well beyond the basic hand sanitizer, distancing and mask precautions.
“It’s been a very challenging year to come up with systems that make everybody happy,” said Rose. “You’re adapting and reinventing your business in ways that you’ve never had to do before.”
Pumpkins spaced apart at Red Apple Farm help customers gauge social distance in lines, and a 40-by-60 foot tent has been set up outside with best-selling farm products.
According to Rose, handwashing at one of the five outdoor sink areas is required before entering the orchards. “It’s just part of COVID to keep customers and staff safe,” said Rose. “We’re working really hard to make it a fun, family-safe experience.”
Red Apple Farm and Apex Orchard have had to hire more employees to handle the COVID-19 restrictions. Foottraffic is proportionally higher than usual on weekdays compared to weekends, which Rose attributes to people’s flexible work schedules.
To keep things moving at the Shelburne Falls orchard, an outdoor station was added to purchase paper apple-picking bags. “We’ve had a positive response, people are very happy to be out here, they’ve been very comfortable,” Smith said.
For Jen Korza and her family, of Northampton, applepicking is an annual tradition. Other than having to wear a mask, Korza says she didn’t feel their experience at Apex Orchard was all that much different from other years.
During the pandemic, when safe family activities have become difficult to find, Korza affirmed that applepicking provides a good level of both normalcy and safety.
“It’s a tradition; it’s easily doable and it’s just nice to be outside,” she said. At all three orchards, masks and social distancing are a must, both in-store and at the orchards. Employees are screened daily for COVID19 symptoms and sanitize between helping customers.
For example, Red Apple Farm has adopted a reservation system to limit the number of people in the orchard and for contact tracing. With 80 acres and only 150 to 200 people allowed in the pickyour- own orchard at a time, the farm is well below the state limit of 170 pickers per acre.
“This is the first year people are showing up right at 9 (a.m.) o’clock to pick apples. We can spread things out with reservations,” said Rose, who also mentioned that they’ve received a positive response to the system.
New offerings replaced hay bale rides and festivals this year at Red Apple Farm, including an “open-air” package that lets customers take home a collection of fruits and vegetables that they pick themselves, including apples.
“We borrowed the idea from another farm. Everyone tries to help each other out in these situations,” Rose said.
To learn more about the availability of apple varieties and the season’s schedule, contact farms directly. Pickyour- own apple orchards are open every day at Clarkdale Fruit Farm from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; every day at Red Apple Farm from 8 a.m. tp 6 p.m. (the store opens at 9 a.m.); and every day at Apex Orchards from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.