Picking season has commenced. All signs indicate a healthy recovery after last year’s inclement weather and crop shortage that rocked the industry. It is emblematic of how there are no certainties in this business, just like any other. Happy to be back at it again.

Sean O’Neill is an apple grower in Groton, MA. He briefly profiles life as a farmer.

A profile of Fairview Orchards in Groton, Mass. Owned and operated by the O’Neill family, managed by Sean O’Neill. 

Fall, 2012.

Green Mountain Orchards in Vermont.

Matt Darrow, pictured, runs the farm with his brother Evan in Putney, VT. In the field he inspects the quality of Honeycrisp apples. Honeycrisp are a less vigorous tree and can be very difficult to grow, with a high susceptibility to Bitterpit - the ugly red/brown spots that develop into rot. Honeycrisp will produce a high yield this year, higher than average, and Matt ensures it is picked to grade.

The clouds gathering belonged to a front expected to bring 70 mph winds. The Honeycrisp sit atop a hill, exposed to the winds, and the picking commenced earlier than expected to reap every good apple before the storm.

Boyd Wiggins, alias Brown Man, is a quality control manager in the orchard. He manages the color, size and location of the 20 or so pickers under his eye. If there is a problem with the packout, the grower goes to him. Boyd takes responsibility for the apples while he doesn’t carry a bucket or pick a single piece of fruit from the tree. 27 years in the apple industry.

Frost damage to a McIntosh apple.
A heavy percentage of apples coming down the line this year carry some effect from the early season frost. The skin is raised and rough like high grit sandpaper. This apple was mature enough that it sustained injury but was not killed outright. It is most likely from a medium to low lying area in the orchard that was high enough to escape the severe temperatures but low enough to endure the frost.
Every apple, no matter its condition, is valuable this year.  

Frost damage to a McIntosh apple.

A heavy percentage of apples coming down the line this year carry some effect from the early season frost. The skin is raised and rough like high grit sandpaper. This apple was mature enough that it sustained injury but was not killed outright. It is most likely from a medium to low lying area in the orchard that was high enough to escape the severe temperatures but low enough to endure the frost.

Every apple, no matter its condition, is valuable this year.  

Beehives are imported to assist in the pollination process. Bees are introduced at bloom and work spreading pollen through each orchard block. Apple blossoms cannot self-pollinate and need different varieties within the same block in order to cross pollenate. A common setup is four rows of Macs, two rows of Cortland; the two varieties work off one another and bloom simultaneously. Crabapple trees are popular, planted within blocks as pollinators and not as producers. Bees are responsible for moving the pollen.

Harvest. Fall 2012.

Growers can expect large returns this year. Frost damage has taken the lion’s share of the apple crop throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and in Michigan. Thankfully, New England was spared the extreme temperatures seen in other areas. Our growers have apples to pick, our packinghouse apples to pack.    

Multicolored apples speckle the dirt beneath the trees like a retro linoleum floor but what remains on the limbs is more promising as the fruit size and color. June Drop has provided growers a more coherent answer to the frost damage extent. Looking through various blocks at the emerging fruit clusters indicates what they will have to pick come harvest. 

Now efforts turn to fighting the grass which can take over and choke up a block with enough rain and neglect. On large farms workers will mow straight through the days and weeks until the grass is under control.

The third photo is a cluster on a block of McIntosh trees planted last year. It is exciting to see a yield in the second year and to have an idea of what to expect in the ones to come. 

Thinning is almost finished as growers assess their crops before June Drop. Thinner applications work by targeting the weaker apples in the clusters to make room for the mature ones to develop. Application strength and amount is an involved decision and this year’s potential crop loss from frost will pressure growers to err on the side of caution and thin lightly.

You hope all five of the blossoms will have enough nutrients and space to grow yielding a heavy, healthy crop. In most cases crops need thinning to ensure the nutrients serve the mature fruit and that there will not be a glut of small mediocre apples in September. 

After thinner is applied, the targeted apples’ stems will yellow and break off (picture 2). For now, the apples are sizing nicely and can change dramatically with the weather and rainfall in the coming weeks.

A saying shared by growers at harvest when the apples ripen and fall before they can be picked - An optimism about what you still have and not what you've lost.

I grew up on an apple orchard in Mass. and now work in a packinghouse. My father is an apple grower and the technical advisor on these entries.

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