Sarah Rennie and Rachel Patenaude
The 2021 apple season could be a bumper year for juice apples. Producers are having to contend with smaller fruit, damaged by several nights of hard frost in late May.
“We have a lot of frost marks,” says Tim Petch of Petch Orchards in Hemmingford. Some varieties were impacted more than others, he says. “It’s like a scar on the apple; they looked small but as [the apples] grew they got much bigger. They’ll be juice apples.”
The frost affected the overall volume of his harvest as well, says Petch, who estimates yields will be down by between 20 to 30 per cent. “What we felt at the time was quite significant; even if it wasn’t very cold, it was just enough to do damage,” he explains. Orchards in southern Quebec and across the U.S. border were the most severely impacted by the late frost, while those further north fared better.
Unfortunately, the growing season has not been any easier on the fruit. “We are going through a drought. All the rain we got in July didn’t amount to much. We needed more,” Petch says.
The late-season heat wave of this past week has not helped. “Heat like this, at this stage in their development, is very hard on apples,” says Jeff Blair of Blair Orchards in Franklin. “The heat makes them grow, so the redness dissipates,” and that results in a greener apple, he explains.
For Laurie-Ann Prevost of Rockburn Orchards, the season has been especially difficult, and the first harvest of Paula Reds yielded smaller-than-usual apples. “The back half of the orchard is going straight for processing [into juice],” she says, while explaining the normal harvest of 500 bins will likely be reduced to as few as 300 this season – and none of the apples are good. “The front half of the orchard is average quantity, but the quality is probably just 60 to 70 per cent good,” she says, noting the Honeycrisp and Empire varieties are the most damaged.
Blair’s apples were affected by the frost as well, but he says their size is not “too bad,” depending on the orchard. “U-pick will be fine,” he says assuredly, though “It is by no means a great apple season.”
Ready for visitors despite pandemic
Blair Orchards are ready for the apple season. Having experienced a boom last year, the family-run business is already set up to handle crowds while respecting COVID-19 protocols and measures. “We were really prepared last year,” says Michelle Blair, who points to the take-out window and other small changes that were implemented to help the business run smoothly during the pandemic.
There are also some additions to the orchard: a pumpkin patch, in response to public demand, and sunflowers, which just happened to be in bloom for the official opening on August 14. “It was out biggest opening weekend ever,” says Michelle Blair, who credits the sunflowers as having been an additional draw.
Blair admits they are unsure of how the new COVID-19 vaccination passport will impact their business this fall, but she says they will be sure to follow whatever guidelines are issued.
Petch Orchards also anticipates another busy season and will open as per tradition on September 1. The kiosk at Rockburn Orchards will open on September 11 for U-pick, and a week later for Honeycrisp U-pick.