Apple growers look forward to bountiful harvest

Fred Wescott
In this photo taken Sept. 25, 2012, apple producers like Fred Wescott of Wescott Agri Products in Elgin, Minn., experienced a decline in apple production. But this year, growers are looking forward to an exceptional harvest. "This year we have nice, well-balanced crop loads on the trees," Wescott said. "The fruit size is good."
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Apple lovers may be in luck this year. Despite a late start to the spring growing season, apple trees are full of sweet fruit, and producers are looking toward an exceptional harvest.

It's a vast improvement from last year, when a hot and cold spring killed off many blossoms.

"This year we have nice, well-balanced crop loads on the trees," apple grower Fred Wescott said. "The fruit size is good. Last year, there were some trees without any fruit on and other trees had fruit, it's a much better situation. It's 180-degree turnaround from last year's crop."

The apple harvest will be a couple of weeks late because cool, rainy weather in May pushed back the bloom for apple trees by about two weeks. The crop never had a chance to fully catch up over the summer.

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Despite the delay at the start of the season, Minnesota apple growers are expected to produce nearly 20 million pounds of fruit this year, said Jim Luby, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. That's up from last year, when overall production was down about 50 percent.

That's good news for Minnesota's approximately 150 apple growers.

Luby said the fruit tastes as good as ever.

"It's a little later getting started than other years, but all in all, the fruit quality and flavor is very good and the volumes are good."

"The flavor should be good here as they ripen," he said. "It's just that they're going to ripen a little bit later certainly than last year for what fruit there was last year. And probably a little bit later than people are used to.

On Wescott's apple orchard near Elgin, in southeastern Minnesota, there was a patchwork of apples last year -- some healthy, but others bruised and damaged from hail. This year, he expects to produce about 600 bushels an acre, way up from last year's 150 bushels per acre.

"It's a little later getting started than other years, but all in all, the fruit quality and flavor is very good and the volumes are good," he said.

Jane Lawson, who works at the Seakapp Orchard near Rochester, also predicts a busy fall. The orchard produces Honeycrisp, Zestar, Delicious and other apple varieties.

"Everything looks wonderful," she said. "The apples are producing really, really well. We have plentiful numbers. The only issue we're having right now is because of the really wet spring and the snow in May, our apples are just running a week to two weeks behind schedule."

Lawson said the orchard has already picked several different varieties and within the next two weeks several more are expected to mature.

"We've got the pickers out there," she said. "People are bagging and coming in and picking their own. We are not running out of apples that are currently ripe."

The forecast is looking better than last year at Pepin Heights, the Red Wing orchard that produces the majority of Minnesota's Honeycrisp apples. Last year, two hail storms wiped out most of the orchard's apples.

Pepin Heights Vice President Timothy Byrne said the orchard still hasn't recovered completely. That's because the cold, wet weather in May was less-than-ideal for pollination.

"In order to make apples, the bees have got to get out of the hives and pollinate the blossoms," Byrne said. "The weather conditions this year were less than ideal for the bees to get their work done as a consequence, there's less apples on the trees than we would have anticipated from the bloom that we saw out there but that's just the way it goes when your factory is outside."