CAPITAL REGION – Pick-your-own season is underway, and some of the pickings are a little smaller and a little sweeter.
Three commercial apple orchards in and near the Capital Region say sparse rain — like we’ve seen this summer — tends to cause apples to grow a little smaller and concentrate the sugars in them.
But, irrigation can make up for what Mother Nature fails to supply by way of rain.
Peter Ten Eyck of Indian Ladder Farms near Voorheesville said the difference is visible. Indian Ladder irrigates with groundwater, which is variable in that area, so it can’t water every tree. Those trees that got the extra water this summer have bigger apples on their branches.
“The apples are a lot smaller this year because of the drought conditions,” Ten Eyck said. “But we’re past the period of cell division in the apple and into the period of cell enlargement.
“We could get a couple of big cloudbursts … We could puff ’em up.”
He added, self-effacing, “People who grow things are always looking for something to whine about.”
At the verge of harvest, he said, the fruit is just as good, just a size smaller than normal.
Visitors can pick early varieties now, and other varieties starting Labor Day weekend.
Kevin Bowman of Bowman Orchards in Rexford said he irrigates the whole operation and the size and quantity of apples is normal as a result.
“But we do find that the sugar content is higher this year than last year,” he said.
The heat hasn’t been a problem so far, Bowman added. When the trees were in blossom this spring, the temperatures were quite warm, which made the bees more active, which got the pollination done faster, which is good, he said.
But it would be nice for the heat to ease up now, Bowman said, “Once we get close to harvest, we need the cool nights to get the color” on the later-yielding varieties.
The early-yielding apples that customers are now picking — the Sansas, Tydemans, Zestars and Paula Reds, even some early Honeycrisps — have already set their colors.
“It has been a very good growing year,” Bowman said.
Apple orchards aren’t just a fun day trip for the public. They are a significant piece of the state’s agriculture industry.
New York is ranked second in the nation for apple production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2021, 44,000 acres of orchards in the state yielded 1.33 billion pounds of apples with a value of $345 million.
Bellinger’s Orchard, on the hill above Fultonville in the town of Glen, will open for pick-your-own on Sept. 3, the start of Labor Day weekend and the beginning of the end of summer.
“We have literally had one inch of rain in the last two months,” co-owner Ken Coyne said.
The water in one of the irrigation ponds is so low that the pump is visible.
“I could definitely use some rain,” he said.
The orchard has more than 60 varieties of apple trees, some of them heirlooms dating back more than 200 years.
“I know we’ve got one variety that goes back to the 1700s,” Coyne said.
The 50-or-so varieties of mature apple trees do have fruit this year. Some apples, like the Cortlands, are reaching normal size; others are still small, though quite tasty.
“I’ve been eating them, they’re very high in sugar and full of flavor,” Coyne said.
This is the first apple harvest for Ken and Linda Coyne since the passing in February of her father, Thomas Bellinger, who doted on the orchard.
Bellinger’s parents, Furman and Mildred, got into commercial apple-growing in 1930 and Thomas created one of the area’s first pick-your-own operations there in the 1960s. Thomas Bellinger also transitioned the farm away from a dairy operation, with its long hours and challenging economics.
The Coynes bring the public into the orchard earlier in the season for pick-your-own blueberries and cherries, and later in the season with a corn maze and pumpkin patch. They also sell from a farm cart or farm market on site for several months out of the year.
Many other farmers pursue this kind of vertical and multi-faceted business model so they aren’t just selling a commodity for whatever the wholesale market will bear.
Indian Ladder has done this for decades, bringing the public on site with a market, cafe, apple picking and baby animals to pet. More recently, it began brewing beer and fermenting cider, then added a tasting room and biergarten.
Ten Eyck, who is the owner but leaves most of the actual work to his son, daughter and son-in-law, said these kinds of spin-off ventures and value-added products are critical to meeting the farm’s significant overhead.
But at the heart of it all, Indian Ladder is an orchard.
“We’re still in the business of trying to grow things,” Ten Eyck said. “I get really pleased when people come out in the fall and pick something for themselves that grows here.”
Supermarkets, he said, have convinced many consumers that every apple needs to be big and beautiful, but the small ones taste just as good.
And pick-your-own apples are sold by volume, not by number.
“So you get more of them to the half-bushel!” Ten Eyck said.
For those drought-stunted 2022 apples that are too small for the retail shelf, Indian Ladder has a little something called the cider press.
“We’ll have a home for them, we do every year,” Ten Eyck said.