March 15, 2010

Dream of a cropWeather conditions help produce a red and juicy harvest this year

BETH QUIMBY

— By

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Bill Adams picks apples at McDougal Orchards in Sanford on Thursday, September 18, 2008. Area orchards are experiencing a bumper crop of apples this season.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Marvin Nye loads a crate of apples onto a truck in an orchard at McDougal Orchards in Sanford on Thursday, September 19, 2008. Area orchards are experiencing a bumper crop of apples this season.

Staff Writer

Maine apples are bigger, sweeter and redder this year, but there are fewer of them and they might cost a little more.

Thanks to a wet summer and plenty of warm days and cool nights, the quality of Maine's apple crop is high this year, according to Maine apple growers and industry specialists. But rising fuel costs and changes in the industry are driving the price of home-grown apples higher.

''It's a beautiful crop. A lot of years we fight for colors at this time, but the MacIntosh has all the color in the world,'' said Bob McDougal at McDougal Orchards in Sanford.

The apple crop is just moving into peak season in Maine, which grows more apples than any other New England state.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maine produced 40 million pounds of apples in 2007, which generated $12 million in cash receipts for growers. The second-biggest grower, Massachusetts, produced 39 million tons worth $15.5 million.

Because of its cool temperatures, Maine also produces some of the country's reddest apples. So this fall's crop, after a wet, cool summer, is quite colorful, said Renae Moran, associate professor of pomology, plant soil and environmental sciences at the University of Maine in Orono.

Last year's crop was above average in the sheer number of apples harvested because conditions were just right during the pollination season. But the fruit was on the small side because of dry conditions and didn't taste as good as this year's crop, apple specialists say.

The leaves on an apple tree provide the sugar for the apples. The more apples there are, the less sugar there is to go around.

''It is like an overpopulation phenomenon,'' Moran said.

This year's crop is smaller, so there is more sugar available per apple. The apples are also bigger and juicier because of all the rain.

Apple orchard acreage has slowly declined in recent years because of changes in the industry. Moran said competition from South America, New Zealand and other countries, land development pressures and a lack of interest in apple growing are fueling the trend.

In 1998, there were 4,700 acres of apples being grown in Maine, compared with 3,400 in 2007, a 27 percent drop that reflects a New England trend, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Moran said her own census shows the number of acres under cultivation today is closer to 2,400.

Farmers have adapted by selling more of their apples retail, at farm stands and through pick-your-own operations.

Aaron Libby, whose family owns Libby & Son U-Picks in Limerick, said the rising demand for locally grown produce has helped boost sales in recent years. Half of Libby's crop of high-bush late-season blueberries and apples is pick-your-own.

The Libbys sell the rest to local stores, farm stands and the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Mass.

Prices in southern Maine for picked apples are about $1.25 a pound, but vary according to variety and quality. Pick-your-own apples are running from a low of 75 cents at Libby & Son, where some of the crop sustained hail damage, to at least $1.50 a pound at Raven Hill Orchard and Farm, an organic grower in Waterboro.

Growers say figuring out how much to charge for their apples is a complicated process.

''We call around and find out to make sure we are in the same ballpark,'' said Ellen McAdam, who runs McDougal Orchards with her father.

Jean Eveld, owner of Raven Hill Orchard, looks at what is happening in grocery stores and what the costs of labor were for the year. Raising organic apples is labor-intensive -- the grass under the trees has to be hand mown and the organic pesticides, such as sulphur and clay, are expensive.

''We try to make it reasonable,'' she said.

Brackett's Orchards in Limington raised its prices from $6 to $7 a peck this year because of the rising cost of fuel and fertilizer.

''Everything you see is more money,'' Manley Brackett said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

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