As orchards across Maine marked the start this weekend of the apple-picking season in Maine, experts say crops may need some time to catch up.

Renae Moran, a tree fruit specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said this year’s crop looks good, despite being the prediction it will be “less than average.” She said a cold spring hampered pollination, which has delayed ripening of the fruit by about 10 days.

“It was cold when the trees were in bloom,” she said, adding domestic beehives were not as active due to the chill, and wild pollinators had to carry more of the load than usual.

Based on forecasts, Moran said, there are no weather events on the horizon that could stop apple season abruptly, and cold weather should hold off long enough for orchard owners to get all of their apples picked by mid-October.

Dennis Wichelns, owner of Lakeside Orchard at 318 Readfield Road in Manchester, said the cold spring has set his crops behind by about two weeks. He said he does not expect McIntosh apples, one of the more-popular varieties for pickers, to be available until the third week in September. Instead, he thinks pickers will be targeting Paula Red apples at his orchard early in the season.

Rod Bailey harvests McIntosh apples at his family’s fruit farm in Whitefield. The apple crop this year is “average” Bailey said with a bountiful amount of fruit available to be picked. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Wichelns said fruit size is also smaller than usual at this point, which could hurt his wholesale accounts. Wichelns said current weather conditions and forecasts for picking are “pretty nice,” and he thinks his orchard will yield plenty of apples.

“There’s not much you can do at this point in time,” Wichelns said. “We just have to … hope the fruit does size.”

Peter Ricker, owner of Ricker Hill Orchards at 295 Buckfield Road in Turner, said he will have four major varieties of apples available for picking at the start of the season, including McIntosh, Ginger Gold, Zestar and Paula Red. He said his McIntosh apples are a but greener than usual, but early pickers have enjoyed the tart flavor compared to their usual sweetness.

“They have that little tart bite that everybody loves,” he said. “A lot of people prefer that to the way they (are when fully ripe).”

Ricker also said the season is a little behind due to a cold spring, but also blamed a dry July for reduced crop development. He said some of the apples are a little smaller than usual, but will not be lacking in taste.

Julie, 5, of Waterville, walks through the orchard while picking apples with her family at the Apple Farm, 104 Back Road, in Fairfield on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

Marilyn Meyerhans, owner of The Apple Farm at 106 Back Road in Fairfield, grows more than 50 varieties of apples on her farm and has been picking for about three weeks. She said warm days and cold nights will give the apples better color and sweeten the fruit.

Rod Bailey, owner of Bailey Orchard at 255 North Hunts Meadow Road in Whitefield, said he is trying to hold off on picking for as long as possible to see if the fruit will get a little larger. His orchard opened up for pick-your-own apples on Labor Day weekend.

Along with apple picking, orchards offer other attractions and products for customers to enjoy. Wichelns said Lakeside’s on-site store has added a smoothie bar this year that offers fresh fruit smoothies and Medjool date milkshakes. Wilchelns said he expects the bar and the orchard’s farm market and bakery will be busy during the fall.

Apples ripen on the trees at the Apple Farm, 104 Back Road, in Fairfield on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

Meyerhans said people coming for apple picking make up about a quarter of her total business, with the rest coming through wholesale accounts, a farm store stocked with locally made and grown goods and other activities on the orchard. She said her orchard offers tractor- and horse-pulled wagon rides through the orchards, and she recently put in a sunflower maze.

“(The sunflowers) are just starting to pop now and it will be pretty,” she said.

Over in Turner, Ricker said he expects children’s play areas, corn mazes and the orchard’s hard cider tasting room to be busy. He said the company is ramping up production of pumpkin- and apple pie-flavored hard ciders for its vendors, but will continue to have small-batch flavor “oddities” at its on-site tasting room.

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