Sweet year for area apples

Many farms reporting bigger harvest this year

The Recorder, September 18, 2013.

McIntosh apples hang from a branch of a tree at Carlson Orchards, in Harvard, Mass., Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. Many orchards across New England are facing shortages after a warm spring and late April freeze killed early blossoms. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

When Pioneer Valley farmers harvesting apples say their biggest problem is that there are too many beautiful apples ready to pick at once, that’s a good year.

In 2012, fruit trees blossomed early due to a warm spring and then many buds were killed off during a late frost in April.

With the memories of that dismal harvest still fresh in their minds, orchard owners all around the Pioneer Valley are thoroughly enjoying the best apple season they’ve had in years. And so are their apple-picking customers.

“We weren’t even open for pick-your-own last year. We didn’t have enough apples,” said Ann Barker, co-owner of Quonquont Farm at 9 North St. in Whately. “A lot of our regulars were very pleased to see we have apples again this year.”

Only a week or two into the harvest season, many of the state’s 369 apple farms are reporting an above-average harvest and some said the fruit is bigger than normal, according to a press release from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

In 2011, the state’s apple crop — dominated by local favorites like McIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Gala and Honeycrisp — was worth more than $19.4 million. Massachusetts ranks 12th nationally for the total value of its apple production.

Above-average harvest

Tom Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield said he has harvested three times as many apples as last year.

“We have a wonderful crop,” Clark said. “The warm summer and the ample rain all came together.”

Clark also didn’t offer pick-your-own apples last year. But this year his fruit trees are full of McIntosh and Honeycrisp apples, grapes and plums.

Robert Fitz, co-owner of Small Ones Farm in Amherst, said he and his wife, Sally, haven’t had enough apples to offer pick-your-own apples for years, but they’re considering it this year.

“Last year was a total freeze out. This year is going like gangbusters,” he said. The 500-tree organic orchard at 416 Bay Road is probably going to produce a quarter to a third more apples than an average year, he estimated.

“And I think the flavor is really coming through,” he said.

Jonathan Carr of Hadley is harvesting apples — especially for cider, but of the alcoholic sort. Carr and his wife, Nicole Blum, own an orchard off River Road in Hadley and last year started selling hard cider and an apple pommeau under the brand name Carr’s Ciderhouse. But they lost their 2012 crop to the frost and had to buy apples to press for cider.

“This year is definitely our first big harvest, so we’re really excited,” Carr said this week. “It seems like it’s been a perfect apple year.”

Of the 10 acres of apples in the orchard, he said his favorite cider variety, Golden Russet, was prolific.

“They’re an old-time cider apple and they make wonderful cider,” he said.

The sugar content, important for making quality cider, seems good this year as well, he said. “I was out testing today and most of the apples are at 14 or 15 percent. The Golden Russets are at 16 percent,” he said. “A high sugar content means more alcohol in the cider, and that translates to a more robust flavor and intensity.”

They may still have to buy apples from other local growers to keep up with the demand for the cider, he said, but that’s not a bad problem to have.

“We’re just grateful to have a great crop,” Carr said.