Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cool, rainy weather good for apple crop

The past few days have been good for the New England apple crop. Friday night it was so cool that, for the first time in months, I had to shut all of my windows. The trend continued throughout the weekend, aided by today’s soaking rain, with high temperatures only in the 60s.

Looking ahead we see another day of rain in tomorrow’s forecast, and more moderate temperatures, with daytime highs in the 70s and 80s and overnight lows in the 50s, for the next week. It comes just in time to have a positive impact on the New England apple harvest.

Small in area as it is compared to states like California and Michigan, on any given day New England’s six states still have many weathers. Some areas of the region have had ample rain throughout the summer; some places will have missed today’s precipitation.

Even the microclimates within orchards can cause variations in the crop. Many orchards are planted on hillsides, and those trees are less vulnerable to frost than trees in low-lying areas, where there is little air movement. A 30-second hailstorm can wipe out a block of a particular variety or an entire orchard and not be felt a mile away.

Still, this rain appears to have hit most places, and should help size the crop. The cooler nights will give the apples color. The crop is still running well ahead of a typical year (you may begin to see Macs before the end of the month, rather than mid-September), but this weather, if it continues, will slow the ripening process down some, especially for the later varieties.

As a region, New England is looking at a good, flavorful crop. Between now and harvest, the apples’ colors and sugars will come to the surface, and they will develop in a wide range of sizes. For some varieties, that day is already here, and for others it is about to come!

It’s time to plan an orchard visit.

The 2010 New England fresh apple harvest will be celebrated Friday, September 10, in a daylong event around Massachusetts featuring Commissioner of Agriculture Scott Soares, Russell Powell, executive director of the New England Apple Association, and these apple orchards and apple processing facilities:

10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. J. P. Sullivan, packing house, Ayer

11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Carlson Orchards, with cider-making, Harvard

1:15 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. Red Apple Farm, Phillipston

Beginning that evening through the weekend, the New England Apple Association and Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources will sample apples and give away recipes, brochures and other educational materials at a booth at the Sterling Fair.

The fair’s hours are Friday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday’ 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Commissioner Soares and Powell will give a presentation on New England apple varieties Sunday at 11 a.m.

Learn more about our apples at

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The apples are here!

Ginger Gold, top, PaulaRed, below.

Having a hard time coping with the summer’s extended heat wave? Want to usher in an early taste of the fall season to come? How about biting into a fresh New England apple at your favorite orchard.

The earliest varieties are now being picked. The two most popular commercial varieties in August are PaulaRed and Ginger Gold. If you would like to visit an orchard to pick your own fruit amid the fragrant rows of apple trees, be sure to contact your orchard ahead of time to make sure that the apples you seek are ready. Visit our website, New England Apples, for a listing of orchards by state.

Ginger Gold’s are sweet, tangy and juicy. They are round in shape, with a smooth green-yellow skin and a slight red blush. The Ginger Gold is an excellent multi-purpose eating, cooking, and baking apple. They excel in salads and fruit plates since their crisp, white flesh browns slowly when sliced.

Discovered in a Virginia orchard in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the late 1960s, Ginger Gold is a likely cross between Golden Delicious and Albemarle Pippin apples.

PaulaReds boast a red color with light yellow striping and have a sweet-tart flavor, with a hint of strawberry. The flesh is firm. These McIntosh-type apples are good for both cooking and fresh eating.

The PaulaRed is a relatively new variety, introduced in Michigan in 1968. It came from a chance seedling, possibly from a Cortland.

Other early varieties you might find at this time of year include Jersey Mac, Vista Belle, and Yellow Transparent. These early season apples tend not to keep as long as the later varieties, so get them now, while they are fresh.

The New England apple season is still running about seven to 10 days earlier than usual, a consequence of all this hot weather. It could change in the next few weeks if we have some cool nights and days to slow down the ripening process. But for now, you can anticipate that the McIntosh, New England’s favorite apple, may be ripe for picking at the beginning, rather than the middle, of September.

Friday, June 18, 2010

June drop

Well before it is time for harvest, the size of the New England apple crop is impacted by “June drop.” Occurring now, it is a time when the apple tree divests itself of surplus fruit competing for food, water and nutrients. June drop enables the remaining apples to mature to a good size, without overwhelming the tree.

The fallen apples typically are about one-half inch to one inch in diameter. Even with this naturally occurring governor, farmers follow June drop with additional thinning, often by hand, to ensure a good crop. Only the best-looking, healthiest apples are left to ripen.

If allowed to, almost all the blossoms on an apple tree will bear fruit. But as little as 5 percent to 10 percent are needed for a full crop. By removing excess fruit, the tree is spared from the threat of breaking under its own weight, and does not have to expend energy producing lots of smaller apples.

Another reason for thinning is to allow development of flower buds for next year's crop. This is especially important for varieties that bear fruit in alternate years.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The farms behind the food you eat

New England’s orchards, like the apples they grow, come in all shapes and sizes. There are the larger farms that grow exclusively for the wholesale market; these are the apples that you typically find in your supermarket (admittedly, a large farm in New England is dwarfed by the huge acreage apple growers farm in states like Washington, New York and Michigan, which collectively produce the bulk of the U.S. crop).

There are the farms that span generations, and many of these, happily, continue to thrive (although succession is often a concern). There are the mid-sized operations that make ends meet with diversified crops and an entrepreneurial approach to retail marketing. There are the hybrids—orchards that supplement their farm income with a second business that takes advantage of the beauty of their land, from golf courses to weddings to microbreweries.

However diverse their operations, New England’s apple farmers are a hard-working and resourceful bunch. The New England apple you see at a grocery store, farmer’s market, farmstand, pick-your-own orchard or restaurant is the product of a labor of love: of fruit, land and tradition. Admiring the spectacular view from one orchard lately, a friend commented on its beauty, but then added rhetorically, “Do you know any orchard that isn’t in a beautiful setting?”

It is that love of the land, the fruit it bears and the hard work it takes to sustain it that makes a New England orchard “typical,” rather than its business profile. In this sense, Hamilton Orchards in New Salem, Massachusetts, serves as a good example of the farms behind the fruit you eat.

Hamilton Orchards today produces fruit on about 30 acres, set high off Route 202 on the western side of the Quabbin Reservoir (you can glimpse the Quabbin from several places in the orchard). They grow mostly McIntosh, Cortlands and Macouns, a few Red Spys, with some plums, blueberries, strawberries and pick-your-own raspberries mixed in.

Owner Barbara Hamilton lost her husband, Bill, three years ago; they had been together for 30 years, marrying just months after a chance meeting at an apple growers conference. Today Barbara, at an age when most people have retired, continues to work seven days a week. She says that Bill was still working when he died at 81, and adds, “if he had lived to 101, he still would have been doing what he could in the orchard.”

They had two sons, aged 10 and 12, from previous marriages when they moved to the farm in New Salem in the late 1970s, and the eldest, Bruce, returned to manage the farm after Bill died. Under Bill’s direction, says Barbara, Hamilton Orchards became the first orchard in the region to launch a pick-your-own operation, and to grow raspberries in a greenhouse.

At the outset, they built a small restaurant and bakery, the Apple Barn, with picture windows overlooking the view. We recently had breakfast there (they open weekends beginning in March, but suspend serving breakfast during the peak of the fresh harvest), and it was delicious.

There were no frills, just good food in a nice atmosphere at a reasonable price: blueberry and raspberry pancakes (if you visit, be forewarned: they are huge) served with maple syrup made on the farm, eggs and sausage, home fries, cider donuts, cider and coffee.

The adjacent bakery sells pies and pastries as well as cider donuts (the latter were outstanding), plus cider (from Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts), and a few of their jams, jellies and maple syrup. There are a couple of photographs of Bill on the spare but attractive barn-board walls, some apple posters and, spanning several walls to either side above the cash register, an enormous collection of potholders with apple themes.

The place is bustling in late summer and fall, but much of the selling is done on the road. Though she still limps slightly from a broken foot suffered in February (the cast has been off now for less than two weeks), Barbara has already begun making weekly trips Tuesdays and Fridays to the farmer’s market in Boston’s Copley Square, and sells at farmer’s markets in Chicopee Wednesdays, Holyoke Thursdays, and Amherst Saturday mornings.

The cider donuts, not surprisingly, are a big hit year-round, as is the maple syrup, while it lasts. The berries and apples are sold mostly in season (supplemented with the berries grown inside their greenhouse).

Asked what her favorite pie apples are, Barbara answers quickly and succinctly, “Cortlands.” While she clearly misses Bill, she seems to savor his memory rather than dwell on his loss, and she has successfully managed to carry on their enterprise with Bruce’s help. Whatever challenges she is facing (such as the replacement of two hoods for her industrial ovens this winter, to the tune of $12,000), she’s not complaining. Her love of the land and the lifestyle is palpable.

There is much more to tell about Hamilton (or any New England orchard), but the best way to learn about the source of your local apples is to visit for yourself. At the very least, you can expect good food, fresh air and stunning views. The essence of this quintessential New England experience lingers in every apple you taste grown on these soils, whether you find it in on the limb, at the farmer’s market or in the bin of your produce aisles.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

No bees, no apples

They arrive quietly, in the middle of the night, unloaded from trucks, while they are sleeping. They come from as far away as Georgia and California, and they will be gone in a couple of weeks. The honeybees are descending on New England’s orchards.

That’s because, with the opening of the "king" blossom (the largest and center-most of the apple’s five-blossom clusters), pollination season has begun. While the temperate weather of the past week or so has slowed down the apple bloom, it is still running a couple of weeks ahead of most years due to the unseasonably warm weather the region experienced in early April.

Once the blossoms reach this stage, colonies rented from beekeepers must be moved in quickly—at night so the bees are "home" and not in flight. Sunny, mild days are needed during bloom to encourage strong bee activity. If we have extended stretches of rainy weather during bloom, it can seriously reduce the size of the year’s apple crop.

Pollination is necessary to the reproduction of all flowering plants. It involves the transfer of a plant’s male reproductive cells in pollen to the female reproductive structures of a flower, the stigma.

As the honeybee flies from flowers on one apple tree to those on another in the orchard, pollen sticks to its body. The pollen then rubs off onto the stigma each time the bee visits a flower. Pollen grains stick to the surface of the stigma, germinate and unite with the female cell in the ovary. After fertilization occurs, seeds develop and the fruit begins to grow. In this way, a honeybee may fertilize as many as 5,000 flowers a day.

Apples need more than one variety of pollen for the cross-pollination that ensures good fruit set. A Mac can’t pollinate a Mac, in other words. It needs a nearby Cortland, Empire or other variety to do the trick.

Not all of the orchard’s bees are imported. There are dozens of species of native wild bees that pollinate the apple blossoms. Many local beekeepers also supply New England’s apple orchards (and other farm crops), including hobbyists and, in at least one case, a high school beekeeping club.

It takes roughly a hive of bees to pollinate an acre of apple trees. The hives are often spread throughout the orchard, but the bees can travel far enough from a single location to cover an orchard with a two-mile radius.

Some orchards take no chances, putting additional pollen at the entrances of hives to guarantee that the bees coming and going will have a full payload

One grower in Connecticut recently told us that his supplier’s bee population is down 80 percent this year, a result of honeybee colony collapse disorder, an unexplained plague that has threatened the domestic bee population in recent years. But for the most part, New England growers—and their suppliers—seem unaffected

That may be because there are no great areas of monoculture of trees in New England, as there are in other regions. “There are many woodlots and other suitable non-agricultural areas in New England where there continues to be an active wild bee population,” says Mo Tougas of Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts. “There are plenty of bees to set our crop

“We bring in honeybees for insurance for our apple crop. Adding pollinators also may tend to give us better quality, as fruit will be more symmetrical with better pollination.”

Friday, April 9, 2010

Spring bloom

The unseasonably warm weather is causing New England's apple trees to blossom early, about three weeks ahead of a normal year. In parts of eastern Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the orchards are already showing a lot of color.

Depending on what part of New England you live in, the next week or so will be a good time to drive by your favorite orchard and take in the annual flower show.

It's not good news for farmers, though. Despite the current warmth, it's so early in the season that we will remain vulnerable to frost for the next several weeks, and a hard frost could kill the blossoms and the fruit they would eventually bear. Cold weather after this heat wave could spell disaster for the 2010 crop.

So enjoy the warmth and check out the blossoms. But keep your fingers crossed that it stays above freezing from here on, so that New England's orchards will be as compelling to apple lovers in the fall as they are to honeybees now.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Wolf River apple, dating back to the 1880s, was named after the place where it was first grown, near the Wolf River in Wisconsin. William Springer from Quebec, Canada planted seeds of an Alexander apple near his new farm in Fremont, and the Wolf River was born!

Most notable, perhaps, for its good looks and huge size, it sometimes weighs upwards of one pound. Wolf Rivers are a light red in color with red striping and swatches of light yellow/green. Their pale yellow flesh is coarse and somewhat juicy. These tart apples are most useful as a cooking apple, especially for apple butter and sauce.

Wolf Rivers are ready for harvest in September and do not keep well; they're best eaten fresh off the tree.

Most apple seeds do not reliably reproduce a similar apple tree which is why modern horticulture relies on grafting to propagate varieties. Wolf River is among the few apple varieties that produce, from seed, a tree close to that of its parent.