Local orchards: Apple crop makes major rebound this year

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Neil Johnson
Monday, September 16, 2013

MILTON—Darcie Haakinson surveyed the bowed branches of her 3-year-old dwarf honeycrisp apple trees as the sun cut through late-morning rain clouds at Hawk's Orchard in rural Milton.

The perennial crush of apple orchard customers is still a few weeks away, and a good portion of Haakinson's honeycrisp apples—an early to mid-fall variety—aren't quite ripe.

Yet, Haakinson's hand has been forced.

She has to pick and store some of the honeycrisps now because the small trees are loaded with so many apples their branches are threatening to snap.

Haakinson peered down a 100-yard path between rows of 7-foot honeycrisp and gala apple trees. Apples hung from the trees like clusters of dusty jewels and littered the ground beneath.

“So many apples,” Haakinson said. “It's exciting, but at the same time kind of intimidating.”

The abundance of fruit is a welcome problem for Haakinson and other area apple growers after last year's abysmal apple crop, which was decimated after a late frost in April 2012 killed off apple tree blossoms across swaths of southern Wisconsin. That was followed by a severe, summer-long drought that stressed trees whose blossoms somehow had survived.

Many area orchards reported near-total apple crop failures last year, while others said they were lucky to have one-third or one-eighth of a typical crop, Wisconsin Apple Growers Association President Steve Louis said.    

This year, despite a rainy and cold spring, a summer that was late to warm and recent near-drought conditions, apples have made a rebound, both in the number of fruit on trees and the proportion of Wisconsin's 300 apple varieties that are thriving at orchards, Louis said.

This time of year, apples like cool, dry weather to ripen. A spate of hot weather earlier this month slowed ripening of some apples a bit, but this year's overall crop—even if it's not a record-setter—is a 180 compared to last year, Louis said.

“This year, it looks like a nice, big crop—bigger than average for certain,” Louis said.  

Earlier predictions were for a bumper apple crop throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest. Weather conditions for much of the summer—sunny days in the 70s and 80s and cool, clear nights in the 50s—have been optimal for apple growth, Louis said.

On top of that, apple trees stressed last year from the late frost and summer-long drought compensated this year by overproducing blossoms. That forced many growers to thin their apples—actually pluck some young apples off their branches—earlier this year. That would have been unthinkable at area apple orchards last year.

“We were flicking off so many small apples earlier this year, you couldn't see the ground under all of them,” said Rob Ten Eyck, who owns Ten Eyck orchard near Brodhead.

He said many of his trees, which are dwarf-sized and grown in a trellis system that creates a “wall of fruit,” have 80 to 100 apples on them.

“That's pretty good, Ten Eyck said. “Even after thinning, I'm sure we'll have more apples than we can sell this year,” he said.

Compare that to last year, when 12 of the 50 varieties of apples at Ten Eyck's orchard completely failed.

Thinning by area growers has served to mute the number of apples overall, but it improved the quality and size of many varieties and made the crop more manageable. It also helped ensure trees don't under-produce apples next year, which they can tend to do the year after they produce an overabundance of fruit, Louis said.

Haakinson's upstart Hawk's Orchard at 9034 Searns Road officially opened to the public for the first time this month—on weekends only. She and her spouse, Todd Haakinson, have spent three years establishing trees.

The new orchard and its 12 apple varieties weathered the historic drought last year, and this year near-historic floods put many rows of Haakinson's trees under water for a week.

The trees are young, and though they're bursting with apples, they're still too fragile to allow a pick-your-own orchard for another year or two, Haakinson said.

As Hawk's orchard matures, she's hoping for a “normal” growing year, though she knows such weather anomalies as late frosts and hail—the two big killers of orchard apples—can happen any time.

“You're battling so many elements and variables with apples, and you just don't have a lot of control over it,” Haakinson said.

Extended weather forecasts call for a cooling trend over the next week, with recent 90-degree days giving way to more seasonal temperatures.

That's good news for growers hoping to see their early and mid-season apples ripen as customers begin hitting local orchards hard in a week or two.

“The apples need a little nip at night to blush up and ripen, so the cooler the weather will be, the more welcome it will be,” Louis said.

Likewise, customers need a little nip in the air to get into apple-buying mode.

“What we need is those crisp, 60-degree days on weekends and no rain. That's orchard weather. Nobody wants to buy apples when it's 95 degrees, and nobody wants to walk around some orchard in the rain,” Ten Eyck said. 

On a hazy, cloudless afternoon last week, turkey vultures and a red-tailed hawk circled in air thermals above Ten Eyck Orchard, as if eyeing the apple crop.

Soon enough, droves of hungry customers will be circling Ten Eyck's farm, a prospect Ten Eyck meets with a mix of excitement and mild intimidation.

“At least we've got the apples this year—that means we've got a chance,” Ten Eyck said.

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