It’s the perfect time to pluck a ripe apple from a tree and take a crunchy bite. Despite the drought, experts say that Niagara County’s prime fruit crop is plentiful this year. And while the apples are slightly smaller, and some varieties might be a little less rosy, they are sweeter than usual.
“The flavor is exceptional this year,” said Melinda “Mindy” Vizcarra, of Becker Farms at 3724 Quaker Road, Gasport. “If they’re a little small, eat two instead of one!”
Craig Kahlke concurred. He samples apples for maturity in order to advise farmers about the optimum time to harvest for long-lasting storage.
“I taste plenty of apples, and they have been very sweet off the tree this year,” said Kahlke, who works in fruit quality management for the Lake Ontario Fruit Project, Cornell Cooperative Extension.
“The apples are sweeter and firmer,” he said. “And, we have plenty of apples.”
That’s important news for Niagara County’s 75 apple farmers and for apple lovers, too.
“Apples are a big industry,” Kahlke said. “In 2015, the value of the apple crop in Niagara County was $18.1 million, and statewide, the apple crop value was $275 million.”
Apples are Niagara County’s top fruit crop, and New York State’s, as well, according to James Bittner, president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau. He said New York is second only to Washington State in apple production. Washington provides 75 percent of the nation’s apples.
But local farmers urge customers to pick – or at least purchase – fresh, local apples. Many consumers don’t realize that they can easily store apples in cool places for extended periods, they said.
“People don’t realize apples will keep in the refrigerator,” Vizcarra said. “They’re cheaper to pick yourself than buying at the grocery store, and better, because you hand-pick them.”
Her farm offers about a dozen varieties for customers to pick, with a few new varieties ripening each week.
“The Crispins are looking really good this year, for example, and we’ll have a beautiful crop of Red and Golden Delicious,” she said. “The Empires also look really good.”
She added that her family sells apples through their farm market until Christmas, although U-pick will wind down by the end of October or beginning of November.
She said the drought did not affect her orchards too badly, as “they’re pretty mature trees, so they have a good root system.”
In talking to farmers, Kalhke said he believes “we have not seen such an extended drought in more than 50 years.”
“There has always been plenty of rain in New York – too much rain at times,” Kahlke said.
Historically, farmers have been inclined to install drainage tiles in their orchards rather than irrigation, Kahlke said, but after this year’s weather, he’s talked to many farmers ready to invest in reliable watering methods.
He also has heard stories of wildlife eating the fruit for the moisture this year.
“I’ve heard all kinds of stories,” he said. “I’ve heard of birds attacking cherry trees long before they’re ripe, and of raccoons and groundhogs getting really aggressive in protecting their territory because they’re looking for water. They’re thirsty!”
Kahlke said some farmers may have experienced delayed apple harvests this year for two reasons.
“First, we’ve been waiting for color because cool nights ensure color change, and we’ve had so many warm nights,” he said. “And, secondly, is the stress of the whole drought on the trees – the maturity has been way behind.
“There is no such thing as an ‘average year’ anymore, with all of these record highs and record lows,” he said.
Bittner, of the local Farm Bureau, said he has not seen a growing season like this one in the 36 years he’s been farming.
“We’re used to a dry July or August – that happens all of the time,” he noted. “But to start the growing season and have no rain – that doesn’t happen. We’re usually saturated at first. But, we started the season dry this year, because we had a dry fall last year and little snow over winter. We started with a deficit.”
“Most (Niagara County orchards) have a big crop, but the apples are maybe not as large as usual because of the lack of rain. But they’re not too small, just a size down, and they are of very high quality. They’re sweet because of the sunshine and heat – we just had our warmest August ever.”
Julie Blackman, of Blackman Homestead Farm at 4472 Thrall Road, Lockport, agreed that some of the varieties may not have as deep a hue as in past years, “because we need cool evenings to help them color up and we haven’t had that.”
But, overall, her farm has enjoyed a large crop, including the 15 varieties they grow for U-pick, which began Sept. 9 and will continue through the end of October. Cold storage apples – which offer even more varieties – will be sold on the farm through the holidays and “sometimes into February and March.”
The Blackmans helped soften the drought’s effects by “irrigating for size and quality throughout all of our orchards.”
“I think my Dad said we ended up adding about 12 inches of water,” she said. “We didn’t irrigate at all last year, but this year, it consumed our summer, moving irrigation pipe. We usually get one or two dry spells, but this drought was relentless. It was probably the worst I recall.”
The Blackmans have offered U-pick since 1971.
Blackman said, “In 45 years, we now sometimes get three generations at U-pick. People come out, enjoy a few hours and enjoy our farm and orchards.”
Niagara County boasts three other U-pick operations in addition to Blackman’s and Becker Farms. They are Baker Farms in Ransomville; Murphy Orchards in Burt; and Sanger Farms in Youngstown.
And while apples are Niagara County’s top crop, the county ranks fourth in the state in apple production, behind Wayne, Ulster and Orleans counties. Orleans County, which borders Niagara on the east, also offers U-pick opportunities just minutes away at: LynOaken Farms in Medina; Watt Farms in Albion; and Hurd Orchards in Holley.