Gov. Chris Sununu and apple

Gov. Chris Sununu picked the first apple to kick off the fall tourism season at Hazelton Orchard in Chester Thursday afternoon.

CHESTER — Gov. Chris Sununu kicked off the fall tourism season Thursday afternoon with the ceremonial first apple pick at an orchard in Chester, and state officials announced they forecast $1.5 billion in tourist spending from more than 3 million out-of-state, overnight visitors.

Last year’s forecast called for the same amount of visitors spending $1.4 billion, which at the time marked a 4.5 percent increase in visitors and a 5 percent increase in spending. Each year, the fall season accounts for a quarter of the state’s annual visitation.

The new figures were shared during an event at Hazelton Orchards in Chester. Sununu read a proclamation recognizing the contributions of the apple growers to the state’s economy and declaring Sept. 5, 2019, New Hampshire Apple Day.

Sununu later picked the first apple of the season.

“I always try to get one I haven’t had before,” Sununu said.

Farm manager Kitt Plummer told Sununu he had picked a Zestar! apple, a sweet and modern variety whose trademark has an exclamation point attached.

Plummer said it felt great to host the New Hampshire tradition this year.

“It’s a fun time. It kicks off the harvest season,” Plummer said.

It’s also big business. There are about 200 apple growers in the state, producing nearly 20 million pounds of apples per year, adding about $12 million dollars to the state economy, according to the governor’s proclamation.

“It is such a huge part of our economy, a huge part of our culture,” Sununu said.

He said he wanted to encourage more residents to come to the orchards and farms that they may not realize are right in their backyards.

Commissioner of Agriculture Shawn Jasper and Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell also spoke at the event.

Jasper said most of the apple sales come from pick-your-own, with a few going to the wholesale market. He said New Hampshire has focused on agrotourism initiatives for the past 130 years, starting with a program to invite buyers of about 1,400 abandoned farms. Back then, about 50,000 people would visit from out of state, he said.

“We have a long, proud history of agrotourism,” Jasper said.

Caswell said the effort to bring in tourists today is not unlike the efforts 130 years ago to encourage people to move here permanently. He said the state needs to combine efforts to draw tourists with efforts to draw in workers and residents.

Caswell said the state has made some strides in the past few years to increase the in-migration of millennials, but housing remains a significant challenge as the state faces a vacancy rate of .75 percent.

“That’s a pretty legitimate crisis level,” Caswell told the Union Leader.

To combat that, he said his department is trying to find unique solutions to the problem by improving the regulatory environment and teaming up different kinds of developers with one another to increase the state’s housing stock, all while enabling local control.

Earlier that morning, Sununu signed into law a bill that broadens the definition of agriculture and existing agricultural use at Bedrock Gardens in Lee.

While there, his parents joined him, Sununu said, and his mother presented him with a bag of apples to take with him. He said he had to politely decline because he had to pick the first apple of the season later in the day.

“She understood,” Sununu said.

Hazelton Orchard has been owned by the Hazelton family since the mid 1890s, Plummer said. Four generations of the family were present for the ceremony.

Plummer said the land was used as an orchard before the Hazeltons bought the land, and they still have some apple trees that are about 150 years old.

The 13.5-acre farm produces about 20 different varieties of apples. Last year, Plummer said they had more McIntosh apples. This year, they have more Honeycrisps.