Even lifelong apple harvesters at The Apple Farm in Fairfield were surprised this year by something they had never seen before at their orchards: small bites on the fruit and scratch marks on the trees.

Squirrels have been racing humans to enjoy this year’s crisp apples first. The only way to combat the problem?

“Pray for heavy traffic,” joked Robin Garland, one of the farm’s local employees, as she sorted and polished a selection of McIntoshes on Tuesday.

“There’s nothing you can do,” said Bruce McDougal, a part-time delivery driver for The Apple Farm and the brother of one of its owners, Marilyn Meyerhans. McDougal spent several years as a picker.

Despite the uninvited animal snackers — and the generally dry weather during the summer — this year’s apples have been as tasty as ever, according to Meyerhans. Though more rain would have bulked up the fruit, smaller apples are often more concentrated in flavor. According to McDougal, the lack of humidity also prevents fungus from growing on the surface of the apples.

Biologists have said a bumper crop of acorns, pine cones and other staples last year resulted in a population boom among small rodents, including squirrels. That increased population has resulted in more squirrels ending up dead after trying to cross Maine roads this year. And, apparently, more of them have appeared in orchards as well.

Other local orchard owners in central Maine reported the apple crop looking good this year, with plenty of fruit of good color and size hitting peak season right about now. The Maine Pomological Society’s website lists some of the state’s orchards, by county.

Larry Donahue, an owner of Pleasant Pond Orchard in Richmond, said he’s seen more squirrels around this year, running across paths as he travels, and in the tops of trees. However, he said, the additional squirrels haven’t done much damage to the orchard’s apple crop, which has 45 to 50 varieties of apples at its U.S. Route 201 farm stand. The orchard does not offer a pick-your-own option.

At Bailey’s Orchard in Whitefield, owner Rodney Bailey also said gray squirrels have been a sizable problem for him this year, helping themselves to not just apples, but also pumpkins and other fruit. He said he’s talked to some homeowners with just one or two apple trees who said squirrels ate every single fruit this year.

The business has seen a roughly 100 percent increase in the number of squirrels taking fruit from the orchard this year, Bailey said, but even with that, the orchard grows so many apples it can handle that. The orchard is open seven days a week and has pick-your-own, as well as already picked apples for sale, and all-natural cider pressed on site.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had this year is gray squirrels,” he said. “They’re eating our pumpkins, apples and everything else. But we’ve got a lot (of apples), so if they eat some, we’ve still got plenty of apples and the picking is good.”

EMPLOYMENT PRESSURE

Though many Maine farms have been suffering from a labor shortage this year, The Apple Farm in Fairfield has been able to tread the waters, largely because of the help of a group of Jamaican workers, most of whom have returned to work on Meyerhans’ farm for close to two decades. The H2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers has enabled Meyerhans to support the international employees who are, in many ways, the heart of the farm come harvest time.

“Without them, we would close down at the level that we’re at,” Meyerhans said.

The Apple Farm will have an open house this weekend, where visitors of all ages can pick apples, take a wagon ride, watch cider being made and more. The farm will remain open through mid-November.

McDougal said several of the Jamaican men can pick five 23-bushel bins worth of apples a day, compared to the one he filled per day back when he spent his days in the trees.

Orlando Bacres, who has been with The Apple Farm for 18 seasons, is particularly well-known for his work ethic.

“If they wanted him to press from 5 a.m. to 10 at night, he would,” Garland noted.

Barces said, with a wide smile, that he loves “everything” about the job.

For a farm to be eligible for H2A workers, it has to demonstrate to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that too few Americans are willing, able and qualified to do the temporary agricultural work. Each year, The Apple Farm distributes an ad recruiting Maine workers, which goes mostly unanswered.

“You can’t get employees from the States,” McDougal said. “You just can’t.”

Even though the international workers are fully legal, the threat of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raiding the farm — as they did, on unfounded grounds, nearly 20 years ago — looms as word has spread among Maine farmers about spot inspections the agency reportedly has been conducting throughout the state recently.

Despite the physical strain of the job, and the pressures of finding a sustainable workforce as many of the longtime Jamaican workers age out, a passion for the work keeps the Meyerhans going.

“We just love growing apples,” Meyerhans said.

Her husband and co-owner of the farm, Steven, plants new trees each year, and the community’s love for their products — they cultivate 54 varieties — is clear.

Just last weekend, Meyerhans’ sister couldn’t even walk from the frying machine to the bakery shelf with a sheet of several dozen apple cider doughnuts before a crowd had snatched up every single one.

QUALITY FRUIT

Paul Peters, owner of Chick’s Apple and Berry Farm on Main Street in Monmouth, said the orchard’s crop this year was good, though the size of its apples seems a bit smaller than in previous years. That’s likely because of a dry spell earlier this season, he said, just after apple trees bloomed, when cell division takes place in apples.

“The size this year is good but not quite as large as last year,” Peters said. “With this cool weather, the color is really beautiful now. The next two weeks you’ll have optimum quality, in terms of flavor, look and color.”

Peters said he’s heard from other growers who have had problems with squirrels this year, but he hasn’t seen enough to cause any problems on his 7-acre farm. His farm previously belonged to members of the Chick family, which used to run a major commercial apple-growing operation in the area.

Peters said they’re growing McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Cortland and Macouns, in an orchard overlooking Cochnewagon Lake.

“It’s a great outdoor, simple, family experience in a natural Maine setting and a high-quality fruit,” he said of picking apples at the orchard, which he said is self-service.

Donahue, at Richmond’s Pleasant Pond Orchard, said a number of varieties, including McIntosh, Cortlands and Macouns, are in their peak season and the weather has been good.

“They like cold nights like we’ve got now. It sweetens them up, so it’s a good time,” Donahue said. “We’ve got some good-sized apples this year. Most of them are of average size. We always seem to have some nice big Macs and big Cortlands. We’ve got plenty of apples. We just wish people would come buy them.”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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