Apple season is in full swing here in Maine, a good two weeks early. But Steve Eveld says it’s “kind of painful” to walk through his organic orchard.
His Raven Hill Orchard in East Waterboro is small, just 700 trees, but it grows 40 varieties of apples, many of them highly-prized antique varieties. Thanks to an unexpected frost last spring, he’s lost 75 to 80 percent of them.
“Apples are pretty resilient,” he said, “but I think we hit 25 degrees. And at the stage they were at, the fruit had already set. The apples were probably green pea size. What it does is it kills the germ, the inside, the seeds. And then the apples don’t develop. They just fall off.”
At the other extreme is McDougal Orchards in Springvale, where some apples have frost damage but most survived. Add in the fact that the branches weren’t thinned as heavily as usual, and “we have a load of apples — a lot, a lot of apples,” Ellen McAdam, the owner, said last week. “And they’re not small. They’re big. And they are beginning to break branches, so people need to come pick.”
Many Maine orchards lie somewhere in between. Where they’re located largely determined how well they survived the frost. Elevation plays a role, and orchards surrounded by woods were hit harder than those on open land.
“We have two orchards, and at the one in Manchester, which is near Augusta, we ended up with half a crop because of the frost when we were in full bloom,” said Marilyn Meyerhans, who owns the orchards with her husband, Steve. “But the rest of the crop is good. And then our Fairfield orchard, it’s a full crop but it’s coming so early that we’re picking like crazy about a week before we should be. But they’re ready.”
At Randall Orchards in Standish, the pick-your-own season normally runs to the second week in October, but this year it will be over by the third or fourth week of September because the orchard lost so many apples. Like a lot of other orchards that are short on apples this year, Randall’s is bringing in apples from other sources so it can stay open and provide the apples and activities the public has come to expect during apple season.
“I think a lot of farm stands that suffered losses are just going to buy apples from other farm stands,” said Renae Moran, a tree fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “So people can still go to their favorite orchard and expect apples. But the pick-your-own season might end early for some people.”
Moran said she expects the state’s apple crop to be down by 25 to 50 percent from the average of 800,000 bushels. Fruit flavor is good this year, but red color has been slow to develop because of the heat.
Some apples have russetting, a roughness on the surface of the fruit that was caused by the freeze, but such frost damage is mostly cosmetic. The apples are still edible.
“Sometimes it improves the flavor of the apples,” Moran said. “There are some apples that naturally russet, and people who highly prize the intense-flavored apples like these russet types.”
At McDougal Orchards, frost damage is common on varieties that have Golden Delicious as part of their make-up — varieties such as Gala and Ginger Gold and Crispin, McAdam said — but there are just as many apples with no damage at all.
What has stunned McAdam is the earliness of the season.
“We’re picking Macs now that look like the middle of September McIntosh,” she said. “We’re picking Honeycrisp, which we never picked until the second or third week in September. It’s just extremely early, a couple of weeks early. We’re just going 100 miles an hour here. It’s crazy to have this many apples so soon.”
Moran said an early start to the season doesn’t necessarily mean it will be over early.
“I think the season will be extended because we don’t usually see this earliness in the late varieties,” she said. “There is one variety that’s not ripening up earlier than expected, and that’s Ginger Gold. It’s ripening up right around the time that it normally does.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]