If local apples are what you’re after, start looking now.
They’re ripe and available, and they won’t cost too much more than last year — especially if you buy from an orchard or roadside stand, state agriculture officials said.
That’s a huge stroke of luck, given the disastrous crops in the Midwest and South. The apple harvest is down more than 80 percent in Michigan and 70 percent in North Carolina, according to Mark Gedris, director of communications for the U.S. Apple Association. Some growers in Michigan had no fruit at all.
Maine and other New England states are harvesting more apples than their Midwestern counterparts, but even they are harvesting fewer apples than in recent years. Maine is off about 17 percent to 30 percent, depending on which apple association is counting — the regional or the national group. The apple folks estimate a drop from a five-year average of 800,000 bushels to 570,000 this fall.
It could be worse. New Hampshire is down nearly 50 percent; Vermont, about 30 percent; and Massachusetts, about 20.
The nation’s big winner is Washington state. “They had a bumper crop,” Gedris said. Even though farmers there had to contend with hail as a weather hurdle, they bounced back and increased their yield from 130 million bushels to a projected 140 million to 145 million bushels.
Here in Maine, some growers are reporting yields coming in just a little bit early; but there’s no question that by this weekend, the apples will be ready to go — whether you pick them yourself or buy from a local farm stand.
At Rollins Orchards, a Garland farm that’s been in the family since 1821, owner Jean Rollins, with help from her son, Ernest, and his wife, Andrea, has been stocking their market for a while.
“We’ve been picking for three weeks,” Jean said. “That’s early. It’s a pretty good crop this year; overall, it’s about average.”
Not so for growers in the Midwest and Atlantic Seaboard states farther south. Michigan’s apple crop is down from 20 million bushels to a projected 3 million, Gedris said. Nationally, the average overall production is projected to dip from 225 million bushels to 202 million, he said.
“Most of that loss comes from (parts of) the East and Midwest,” Gedris said. Pennsylvania skated by, as did Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia; but the warm winter and very early spring, followed by a freeze at the end of April, translated into big trouble for a lot of growers elsewhere.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad in Maine.
“Excellent,” was the effusive description of the crop at Cayford Orchards in Skowhegan from owner Jason Davis. As for the weather — particularly the April freeze — no problem resulted in orchards in central Maine, he said.
“We missed it by two days,” he said. “South of here, they were in full bloom” and therefore suffered significant damage, “but we dodged the bullet.”
Consequently, of the 75 varieties of apples Cayford raises, 58 are going to the fair for judging, he said.
“People say the apples are early,” Davis said. “They’re not for us. We say, ‘September 15,’ so (buy or pick) this weekend.”
Rollins Orchards lucked out, too. The double hit of the early spring and late frost “didn’t seem to affect a lot of trees,” said Rollins, who sells 40 kinds of apples over the course of the season — everything from utility to fancy grade. Prices are running from $14 to $24 per bushel, and a bit higher for those consumers who prefer to buy by the bag.
Statewide, growers are relieved to have escaped not just the balmy winter and spring freeze but also the summer drought that was the last straw for Midwest growers.
Here, “they’re just so excited to have apples this year,” said Renae Moran, tree fruit specialist with the University of Maine/ Cooperative Extension at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth. Whatever frost damage growers might have suffered this year, she said, it was “better than two years ago.”
The vagaries of supply across the nation mean that “wholesale prices will go up,” Moran said, but prices at the farm stand probably will hold steady — about $5.25 for a 5-pound tote of McIntosh, fancy grade, anywhere between York and Aroostook counties.
And for those who may work up a thirst while picking their own apples, the Rollinses have a cider press, to produce their own fresh juice.