Friday, October 28, 2022

Apple orchards look for rebound after subpar season

By Abby Wilson

The last of the apples have fallen from trees in Cumberland County and throughout the Lakes Region where the season was not very good due to summer droughts across the southern part of the state.

Varieties of apples are plentiful in Maine,
but this past season was tough for apple
growers such as Meadow Brook Farm in 
Raymond because of continuing drought 
We all noticed the lack of rain this summer, but how does a dry summer affect fruits and fall harvests? Apple trees flower in the spring and begin to produce fruitlets (clusters of young apples) shortly after. If these fruitlets do not get enough water, the tree will drop them, to conserve nutrients.

This affected both wild trees and orchards this season. Paired with the fact that many apple trees are biannual producers, the season was sub-par, growers say.

In fact, the entire Cumberland County area was hit hardest in the state with drought. Northern Maine sites like Aroostook County had a much better apple season, says Alexander M. Koch, a “fruit explorer” originally from Cumberland.

Koch travels throughout the state, and sometimes further, to talk with other apple lovers. He considers himself a “fruit explorer” and has an orchard of about a dozen fruit trees himself.

“My main interest is finding wild varieties with desired traits and spreading the word about them,” Koch said.

If you’ve ever set foot in an orchard, you know that apples come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But you probably didn’t know that apple growing season is much longer than the one month in the fall when harvesting is most popular.

Some varieties, like Black Oxford, a Maine heirloom apple, isn’t ready to pick until November. Some varieties are ready as early as July. However, the peak season for popular and delicious apples such as Cortland, Macintosh, and Honeycrisp, is September to mid-October.

Pick-your-own is very popular in the early fall because so many tasty varieties are ready to eat right off the branch, but the weather and foliage are also pleasant, which brings many people out to the orchards.

There are so many apples in Maine and the popular variety is constantly changing. You can actually date an old orchard based on the varieties that are present, says Koch.

If an older or younger variety is present, you’ll know so based on historical evidence. For example, if a Baldwin apple tree is present in the orchard, it’s probably a newer variety, because we know Baldwins were mostly wiped out by frost in the early 1900s.

Apples go through many phases of inspection before being packed to sell. If the operation is large enough, industrial machines will do the grading and sorting. Most farms have employees that look over each apple to determine quality. The best apples go to grocery stores. Others will be sold in the farm store, be pressed into cider, or go to the pig farmers/compost pile.

These graders are inspecting each individual apple for insect damage, deformities, or small holes from other apple stems. Produce markets expect apples to look a certain way and to be a certain size, even though size does not change the taste of the apple. Honeycrisps are expected to be bigger than liberty apples, otherwise people may not want them.

Pick-your-own is over, and the trees are bare, the ground is littered, and there’s about 30 apples with one bite out of them strewn across the parking lot. What happens now?

Once the season is now over and orchards give their “drops,” apples that have fallen naturally to the ground, to farmers which then feed livestock such as pigs or chickens. If spiked cider is being produced, many small orchard owners can use these drops because the cider will be fermented and therefore, a sterilizing process can naturally occur. Otherwise, these dropped apples become compost.

The most popular varieties today are apples such as Macintosh or Honeycrisp. If orchardists know people buy certain varieties, they tend to grow those varieties. But popularity is always changing, Koch says, and “Heirloom varieties are picking up momentum”. These are varieties that have been grown in Maine for hundreds of years and lately, interest in them is growing.

Black Oxford for example, is an heirloom apple variety that was historically grown in Maine due to its cold-hardiness and its ability to be stored for months through the winter.

Besides droughts, there are other threats to apples which include invasive insects, like the brown tail moth, fungus, and disease.

The new owners at Meadow Brook Farm in Raymond have spent their first-year learning all there is to know about growing apples in Maine.

“We experienced a very short season this year. Fingers crossed for a longer 2023 season as we have some fun and delicious things planned for next year,” Meadow Brook owner Shana Webb said. <

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