Local apple orchards have adapted to pandemic guidelines and anticipate a busy season. At Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland, from left, are Susan Novak, Greg Sweetser, Ryah Lempert, Trish Stickney and Declan Murphy. Courtesy of Greg Sweetser

CUMBERLAND — Maine Apple Sunday kicked off the start of apple picking season last weekend and three local orchards are already seeing visitors partaking in what they say will be a delicious, if slightly unusual, year.

“A lot of people were looking for something to do and get out and enjoy the fresh air,” said Margie Hansel, who owns Hansel’s Orchard in North Yarmouth.

Hansel’s Orchard in North Yarmouth updated safety protocols to protect visitors, including regularly sanitizing picker poles. Courtesy of Margie Hansel

Hansel said the first weekend of the season is always busy and “typically (it’s) a good weekend, but this weekend was a great weekend.”

Orchard owners have adjusted their operations for COVID-19 precautions, such as replacing reusable wooden baskets with take-home bags for apple picking, sanitizing picker poles and reconfiguring market spaces to allow for physical distancing.

“I think we’re lucky that our seasonal business is a fall business. A lot of protocols are established, people are used to shopping in this COVID-era,” said Greg Sweetser, owner of Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland Center.

September is the peak of the season, when growers move from their summer crops into their fall crops, said Renae Moran, a professor of pomology at UMaine Cooperative Extension.

According to the most recent data from the state Department of Agriculture, Maine farmers produced 39.2 million pounds of apples, 27.5 million of which were sold in the fresh market, meaning they were not processed, for a total value of $15.5 million. The fruit and tree nut economy, excluding berries, accounts for about 8% of Maine’s annual agricultural economy.

Moran said Monday that many of her usual visits to orchards throughout the state had to be called off this year because of the pandemic, but judging by the apples in her own orchard, this year’s crop seems “to be as good as they can be.”

Sweetser’s has an open-air market where it also sells locally made products, such as maple syrup and honey from Cooper Farms in Windham and their “famous” apple cider donuts, baked exclusively for them by HiFi Donuts in Portland.

“We do not do pick-your-own, (but we’ve) been extremely busy,” Sweetser said.

Although visitors aren’t allowed in the 1,000-tree orchard, Sweetser said that “people are really liking being outside,” shopping at the market and walking around the open parts of the property.

Last year was Sweetser’s best year ever, he said, and even though the orchard’s Sept. 1 opening was probably the latest opening in its 200-plus-year history, “we’re ahead of our best year ever in the first 13 days, (and I’m) assuming that trend is going to continue.”

Thompson’s in New Gloucester is also offering gigantic, 90-pound watermelons this year. Courtesy of Thompson’s Orchard and Bakery

At Thompson’s Orchard and Bakery in New Gloucester, which offers pick-your-own, owner Mike Thompson said he’s also seeing customers who are are eager to spend time outdoors.

“We’ve got 20 acres out here and it’s really, really easy to stay apart,” said Thompson, whose great-grandfather started the orchard in 1906.

Moran said that the ongoing drought has been a concern for many farmers, but Hansel said that her 80-year-old trees benefited from just a couple of days of heavy rainfall in July and Thompson said that despite the dry summer, “we have beautiful crops this year.”

And for the apple-averse, Thompson’s crop of 90-pound watermelons will be ready for harvest in a few weeks.

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