By Ann McCreary
At a time when Methow Valley apple and pear growers should be reaping the rewards of their labor, most are regrouping and hoping for a better crop next season.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever had,” said Dave Schulz, who has been growing apples in his Twisp orchard “for a long time – probably 50 years.”
Schulz, who has 8 acres of apple trees behind Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp, said he normally harvests 300 to 400 bins of apples. “This year all told, I’ve come up with somewhere around 12 to 14 bins,” Schulz said.
Most of his apples go to a Chelan fruit processor, and some are sold locally from bins in the parking lot near Hank’s.
Standing in his orchard this week, Schulz pointed to a red delicious apple tree where only a few dark red apples were visible among the yellow leaves. “There just aren’t that many reds,” he said.
A late spring freeze that arrived on the heels of a warm spell hit local orchards hard.
“It was really nice and warm and brought the blossoms out, and then turned very cold and froze the blossoms,” Schulz said. Spring freezes aren’t unexpected, he said, “but to lose 90 percent of the blossoms is unusual.”
The crop loss has a ripple effect in the local economy, because Schulz was doing all the picking himself this year. “Normally I hire quite a bit of local help, but this year I didn’t hire any at all.”
John Richardson said the crop he and his wife, Stina Booth, harvested at Booth Canyon Orchard is only about 15 percent of normal this year. Temperatures dropped to about 20 degrees on April 30 and May 1 at the orchard on the Twisp-Carlton Road, when their 8 acres of apples and pears were in full bloom.
“At 24 degrees for 30 minutes, you’ll lose 90 percent of the blossoms,” Richardson said.
Frost and hail
Sinclair Orchards, also on the Twisp-Carlton Road, grows honeycrisp apples for eating and for hard cider on 3.5 acres. Because honeycrisps bloom later than other varieties, they generally aren’t as vulnerable to spring frosts, said Beth Sinclair.
“This year, it [the freeze] was really late. We got nailed by that and probably lost 40 percent of the crop,” said Sinclair, who owns the orchard with her husband, John. “It promised to be a beautiful year and honeycrisps are in high demand.”
Adding insult to injury, an intense and very localized hailstorm hit both Booth Canyon and Sinclair orchards in August, pummeling the fruit that survived the freeze with ice pellets.
“That took out the rest of the crop as far as premium grade apples went,” Sinclair said. “When we went to pick them, hornets had gotten inside the bruises. We just left them on the trees.”
Richardson said the pears at Booth Canyon Orchard survived the hailstorm somewhat better than the apples. Pear skins are tougher and the trees are planted more closely, providing more shelter for the fruit, he said.
Booth Canyon sells most of its fruit at farmers markets in the Seattle area, Richardson said. This year he packed up only one box of apples to take to Seattle. He found some amusement in the response he got from people at the markets when they learned about the devastated crop.
“Some people are so sad for themselves. ‘What am I going to do without the apples?’” Others, he said, “were more concerned about us.”
Richard Murray grows 28 varieties of apples at his 1-acre orchard up Twisp River Road. His crop “is significantly down due to that freeze in April … about 60 percent lower,” Murray said. “It’s been erratic weather this year.”
Orchardists along the Columbia River and other areas south of the Methow Valley weren’t impacted by the freeze, because their crops had already passed the blossom stage, local growers said.
Moths a problem
Murray said he and other orchard owners faced another challenge this year – coddling moths, which bore into apples during their larval stage.
“It seemed like the population was strong this year,” Murray said. He and other organic farmers control the pests with a substance containing a virus that is specifically lethal to coddling moths.
The manufacturer had changed the recommended application method this year, and local growers discovered that it did not initially work, which gave the insects a chance to do further damage to the crop, Murray said.
One apple grower in the valley appears to have dodged the worst this year. Richard Wassen of Methow Valley Cider House, with 15 acres on the East Chewuch Road near Winthrop, said his 1,000 trees produced about 15 percent more fruit this year than last.
“We lost a little bit to … frosts in April,” Wassen said. “We’re further north and often times cold settles down in the valley. It didn’t hit us as much.”
Wassen said he has harvested about 25 bins of apples, about 150 pounds each, that he uses to make hard cider and juice at his cider house.
This year’s paltry crop may affect production next year, Richardson said.
“Trees can do this thing called alternate bearing. They set a huge crop one year, then set a small crop or no crop the following year,” he said.
That would appear to be good news for orchardists who have little to show this year, but Richardson said it may also mean more work.
“A big crop tends to be lots of small apples …so you have to thin it really early” to encourage larger fruit, he said. “We’re already starting to think that next year we may have a huge crop of small fruit.”
Despite this year’s setbacks, Richardson was philosophical about the future.
“Farming is like being a baseball fan – next year we’re going to have a great crop,” he said.