Apple lovers will find themselves further out on a limb this year, as New York’s orchards realize the state’s smallest crop in more than six decades.
Nate Darrow, owner of Saratoga Apple in Schuylerville, has known since April this year’s crop would be a tough one. Record-high spring temperatures caused trees throughout the Northeast to bloom early, and subsequent frosts damaged or destroyed many of those blossoms.
The hot, dry growing season also sped the apples’ development, leading to an early harvest.
Crews are working now to get fruit out of the Saratoga Apple orchard, and Darrow won’t have specifics on the crop’s size until that’s done. But this week, he estimated, he has about one-third of a normal year’s crop.
“You-pick is going to be starting later this year — probably either the last weekend in September or the two last weekends in September,” Darrow said.
The delayed you-pick season is designed to give Darrow’s professional picking crew a chance to maximize yields from the smaller crop. Normally, visitors would be in the orchard now, filling their bags with apples pulled from the trees.
But the public picking can result in many apples being knocked to the ground and spoiling, a unwelcome prospect in such a tough year.
“We still want people to come to the farm, and we hope to be able to accommodate everyone, but we know that it will be harder to fill your bag off the trees,” Darrow said.
As a result, the orchard will place bins of professionally harvested apples in the orchard, so anyone who has trouble finding enough on the trees can choose from the bins, Darrow said.
In some respects, Darrow’s orchard fared better than others, he said.
Statewide, the apple crop is expected to reach about 590 million pounds. That’s down 52 percent from the 2011 harvest, and it’s the smallest New York harvest since 1948, when 564 million pounds were picked, according to the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets.
“We’re better endowed with late apples,” Darrow said. “Some orchards tend to have more early or mid-season apples. We have a lot of late apples on our farm, and it was the early and mid-season apples that were more impacted by the spring frost.”
Tom Borden, owner of Borden’s Orchard in Easton, is also president of the Washington County Farm Bureau. He said he’s still assessing the impact on his crop.
“Some varieties are 10 days to two weeks early,” Borden said. “We picked a few (McIntosh) the last day of August, and normally, I wouldn’t look at them until September.”
Borden sells about 40 percent of his apples directly to consumers from a store at the orchard. The majority are sold to wholesalers or to other retailers in the region, and he didn’t know this week how the smaller crop might affect his bottom line.
Darrow said the strange growing season isn’t going to affect his customers’ wallets too much.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that there’s a recession on, and a lot of people are hurting and are very price-sensitive,” Darrow said. “We’re trying not to change our prices.”
The you-pick price is going to be the same this year as in 2011, Darrow said. In the farm’s store, the prices of some varieties — those that were harder-hit than others — will be a bit more expensive.
“We’re holding most of our prices, but we tweaked a couple of items just a little bit,” he said.
As an example, crispin apples, which were among the harder-hit varieties, are going up from $1.49 per pound to $1.79 per pound this year, Darrow said.
Saratoga Apple has had tough crop years in the past, and Darrow began preparing financially for this year’s shortfall after he saw the spring weather’s impact.
“I actually went out and took some short-term debt and made it long-term,” Darrow said. “In other words, I remortgaged the farm after getting frosted, in anticipating of losing money this year. But we still hope to have — and I’m sure we will have — a busy retail season selling apples here at the store.”
The tough season also has Darrow looking more closely at the state’s “farm brewery” legislation, which allows farmers to get into the production of alcoholic beverages, as long as they use raw materials they grow themselves or buy from New York producers.
The law might allow Saratoga Apple to add an apple-wine or hard cider operation to diversify its income stream, as well as allowing the business to function more like a winery, Darrow said.
“It’s a farsighted privilege that the legislators in New York State ... allow these farm wineries,” Darrow said. “And this year, losing some crop has made me realize how vulnerable we are to catastrophic loss of income. And of course, a farm winery, a lot of that activity takes place under cover, inside, and once you get the final product, it stores well.”
Moving into alcohol production might also allow Saratoga Apple to set up a tasting room and sell other New York wines, Darrow said. It’s a decision he expects to make over the next six months or so, he said.
For his part, Borden said he’s not likely to pursue a farm brewery license.
“I’m also a dairy farmer, so I guess I’m not looking to make it too much more complicated,” he said. “Going into another process, that doesn’t really fit for us right now.”