Apple picking

Finn Yarborough, 7, of Portsmouth, picks apples at Applecrest Farm Orchards in Hampton Falls on Tuesday.

A pple Annie owner Laurie Loosigian knew it was going to be a tough season when her small orchard in Brentwood experienced a hard frost in May that damaged the blossoms and ruined about 75% of this year’s apple crop.

That was just the beginning.

“That’s a struggle. Then you add in the drought on top of that, and we haven’t been able to irrigate because we just have a dug well,” said Loosigian, whose family bought the property with its 300 trees in 2011.

The orchard, which has continued to make cider, doughnuts and other fall products, has been letting customers pick apples by reservation only because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But with so few apples, Loosigian said picking has ended and won’t resume until the orchard’s last variety is ready in the next couple weeks.

New Hampshire orchards may have lost an estimated 20% to 25% of their apples this year, according to Russell Powell, executive director of the New England Apple Association.

While some got lucky, many have reported fewer and smaller apples because of severe statewide drought conditions.

According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday, extreme drought conditions expanded from 10% to 22% in southeastern New Hampshire.

The rest of the state also is experiencing severe drought, with only a small portion of southwestern areas reporting moderate conditions.

“There’s no question that overall in New England we’re looking at a smaller-than-usual crop, and the drought has impacted the size of the apples in many locations,” Powell said.

Even in northern areas, places like North Country Orchard in Whitefield were forced to end apple-picking season early.

But “being New England, we have so many microclimates,” Powell said, “I’ve come across some orchards that have had some outstanding crops.”

Some orchards reported a light bloom among some varieties in the spring, and in June, when trees naturally shed excess apples, more than usual fell as a result of dry conditions, Powell said.

Todd Wagner, owner of Applecrest Farm Orchards in Hampton Falls, estimated that about 30% to 40% of their McIntosh apples were lost to drops as the stems dried up.

He said the others aren’t far behind.

“Our crews are in the orchard literally at first light, and we’re picking until you can barely see your hands just to get the crop off the trees before they end up on the ground,” Wagner said.

The farm has other varieties that should provide crops through October, but “this year is going to be a heck of a lot harder than it has in years past,” he said.

Although its apples are scarcer and smaller, Applecrest still will end up with a “modest” crop from its 120 acres, Wagner said.

Other crops struggled, too

Apples aren’t the only crop that has been affected. Many fruits and vegetables have been hurt by the drought.

Wagner said farms usually are “choking” in summer squash and zucchini in late summer, but this year “probably everyone had just enough.”

“This drought has had a severe negative impact, absolutely. It’s made it a really challenging growing season. It was tough during strawberry season. It was tough during blueberry. It was tough during peaches. We lost a number of plantings simply because we could not irrigate,” Wagner said.

Applecrest planted about 12,000 new strawberry plants for next season, but a creek on the farm dried up, causing nearly 60% of the plantings to be lost.

Young peach and apple plantings were lost as well.

Mack’s Apples in Londonderry reported that the drought has reduced its quantities of squash and pumpkins, but the quality is good.

“As far as the apples, peaches and pears, again the size of them was very much affected,” said Rose Searles, Mack’s store manager. “The quality was very good, but they’re just small.”

Meanwhile, orchards are seeing many more people picking apples to beat the coronavirus blues.

“People are anxious to get outdoors, and the orchard represents a safe place to do that. For that reason we’re hearing all over New England that pick-your-own has really been outstanding this year,” Powell said. “That has helped the growers somewhat dealing with the smaller crop, and yet in a few cases they’re getting picked out early as a result.”

While its apple crop is down overall, Hazelton Orchards in Chester has seen its busiest pick-your-own season ever, said owner/operator Kitt Plummer.

“People have been wanting to come out and enjoy the outdoors,” he said.

Applecrest was busy Tuesday as people took advantage of the sunny weather to pick apples and find the perfect pumpkin.

“We always apple-pick, but I think we’re hoping to go more than one time this year,” Portsmouth mom Elle Yarborough said as her son, Finn, reached to pluck apples from a tree.

Tara Lemar of Merrimac, Mass., usually comes in the fall with her kids.

“I’m very thankful for outdoor places that still are operating as normally as possible,” she said.

While Wagner said that though conditions caused “minor price increases” this year, several customers said they don’t mind paying extra, especially when farms are struggling with a pandemic and drought.

“It would not matter to me,” Lemar said.

Krysti Goudouros of Manchester visited Mack’s Apples last weekend and stopped by Applecrest on Tuesday.

“I think we have enough apples for a year, but I think we’ll get more today,” she said.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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