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NY apples to be plucked earlier thanks to unusual growing season

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CANTON - Sinking one’s teeth into a ripe, crisp apple recently plucked at an orchard in the north country is a pastime enjoyed every autumn.

But thanks to the early start of the growing season, apple lovers won’t have to wait for leaves to fall to enjoy munching on their favorite varieties.

Apple growers in the state’s Hudson Valley region have begun harvesting already — three weeks ahead of the normal schedule. As a result, new-crop apples are now hitting markets and grocery stores statewide. Growers in the north country say they plan to open their orchards for picking the first week of September, about two weeks earlier than normal.

While soaking up this summer’s high temperatures has yielded quality apple sizes at orchards this season, the warm weather at the start of the season in March came at a cost. Many of the apple trees that started budding early were left vulnerable to periods of cold weather and frost in March and late April. Some growers in the north country lost more than half of their apples.

New York state’s apple crop is expected to generate a total of 14 million boxes this year — a major decline from the state’s five-year average production of 30.7 million boxes, according to a forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released this month. The national forecast is down 15 percent compared with its five-year average, dipping from 224.5 to 192 million boxes.

Because of the drastically lower state apple supply, consumers should expect to see higher retail prices wherever they go, according to Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association.

“This year puts a spotlight on the kinds of pressures that our growers have to deal with year in, year out,” he said in a statement.

The unusual growing season has brought pros and cons for apple growers and their customers. While customers will enjoy apples earlier than normal, they’ll have to shell out more money to do so because of low supply and high demand. Increased customer demand initially could help boost business at orchards in the north country, but most of them won’t have nearly as much product as they normally do to sell.

St. Lawrence County apple grower Edward J. Carr, who’s operated a seven-acre orchard for 35 years in Winthrop, at 1997 Route 49, said he’s lost about half of his crop because of freezing temperatures in April that killed flower buds. As a result, he plans to sell apples for only about 30 days this fall starting in mid-September, rather than sticking to the orchard’s normal routine of staying open until Halloween.

He said abnormal March temperatures in the 60s and 70s spurred crops to break out of dormancy early. When the frost came in April, flower buds on trees were exposed to the elements.

“In April it dropped to 24 degrees and basically ruined the McIntosh apple crop,” he said, adding that the variety blooms about a week earlier than others. “This is among the worst seasons we’ve ever had here as far as temperatures are concerned. You’re always at risk of losing the most crops when it’s warm early.”

Apples should be sweeter because of the hot summer, Mr. Carr said, but the drought in June and July slowed down the growth.

“Less rain has definitely cut down on the size of apples,” he said. “But the dry weather has been conducive for orchards by eliminating apple scab disease,” which produces lesions on the outside of apples.

But depending on the circumstances, some orchards that managed to avoid the frost in the spring fared better than others.

Located in the northeast corner of Oswego County in the town of Mexico, Behling’s Orchards at 114 Potter Road largely avoided the frost that wreaked havoc at most of the state’s orchards, maintaining roughly 75 percent of its 200 acres of property. Owner Eric Behling attributed the orchard’s successful spring to its proximity to Lake Ontario, which is a catalyst for more moderate temperatures.

“The cooler temperatures kept our trees from budding too early,” he said. “It slows down the development of blossoms,” making trees less susceptible to cold weather.

Mr. Behling said the orchard used its drip irrigation system extensively this season to fend off the drought.

“We’ve watered the trees six to 18 times a day for the past 30 days, and we wouldn’t have done nearly as well without it,” he said.

The orchard’s 70-acre U-pick area will be open from Sept. 5 to Dec. 1. Mr. Behling said he thinks most customers will be surprised by the abundance of apples. Customers have been visiting the family-owned orchard, established in the 1920s, for decades.

Apples are “all over the place,” he said.

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