By Ann McCreary
After last year’s miserable apple crop — described by longtime grower Dave Schulz as the “worst ever” — this year’s harvest is a welcome change.
Statewide, the apple harvest is predicted to be a record. Here in the Methow Valley, growers had to cope with challenges that included wildfire-caused power outages that interrupted irrigation, isolated hailstorms, coddling moths, hot weather during harvest time, and difficulties finding enough pickers.
But local growers say those problems pale in comparison to last year, when a late spring freeze after a warm spell froze blossoms and devastated crops in the valley.
“This year is much better. Two hundred times better,” said Schulz, who has been growing apples in the Methow Valley for about 50 years.
Last year’s freeze left Schulz with only about a dozen bins of apples. This year’s harvest produced his normal output of about 200 bins, which he ships to a Chelan fruit processor for sale on the fresh market.
“It turned out the quality was very good,” despite “excessively hot weather” during the harvest earlier this month, said Schulz, who grows red and golden delicious apples on 8 acres behind Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp.
Schulz said he would have to wait to see if the quality of the apples holds up under storage, or whether the heat may affect their ability to stay crisp.
One of the greatest challenges this year was finding pickers when they were needed, partly because warm weather in the Methow Valley caused the harvest to happen about the same time as elsewhere in the state, Schulz said.
“Normally we’re 10 days to two weeks behind everybody, but we started picking about the same time this year,” he said. “They were short of pickers everywhere.”
Moths cause damage
Stina Booth of Booth Canyon Orchard in Carlton said the “volume on the trees is normal,” but her orchard struggled with coddling moths this year. “We’re throwing out a lot of fruit” damaged by the moths, she said.
In a normal season the moths will produce two generations, Booth said. They emerge from hibernation in the spring, lay eggs on or near the fruit, and the larvae burrow into the fruit.
This year, with a long warm spring and the warm fall, “I’m sure we had a third generation,” Booth said.
The other challenge this year occurred when the Carlton Complex wildfire knocked out power for 10 days.
“We had just completed an irrigation set when the power went out,” Booth said. “We had to find a way to run our irrigation pumps. When it’s 103 degrees and 2 percent humidity, your trees are losing water really fast. A lot of time we will water every afternoon to reduce sunburn in the apples.”
After a few days powerless days, Booth borrowed a couple of generators that allowed her to irrigate the 5.5-acre orchard until power was restored.
Despite the setbacks, Booth said, she and her husband, John Richardson, are “taking full truckloads” of their organic apples and pears to farmers markets in the Seattle area, where they sell most of their fruit.
Richard Murray said it was looking like his 1-acre organic orchard on Twisp River Road would produce an “exceptional crop” until an isolated, four-minute hailstorm in July battered his apples.
“It’s the first time we could recall hail large enough and hard enough to put holes in the fruit,” Murray said.
“About 30 percent of the fruit has damage. That’s going to juice or going to the ground for bears to eat,” Murray said. He was able to sell fruit that had minor damage at the Twisp Farmers Market.
“It adds a whole layer of work to be checking every apple,” Murray said.
Last year, Sinclair Orchards in Carlton lost much of its crop of Honeycrisp apples to the late freeze, and then got pummeled by an August hailstorm that took out most of the surviving fruit.
This year, however, the orchard “had a bumper crop” of Honeycrisp apples, said owner John Sinclair.
“The harvest went well this year,” Sinclair said. “We had a mild spring and no hail. We had the largest crop we’ve ever had.” The 5-acre orchard produced about 160 bins of apples, he said.
“It was just an exceptional crop,” he said. Sinclair Orchards sells organic apples on the fresh market, and processes apples at the orchard for five blends of hard cider.
With such a big crop statewide, “we had trouble getting experienced pickers,” Sinclair said. “Everybody was short of people.”
It was a record crop as well for Richard Wassen at Methow Valley Ciderhouse just outside Winthrop.
“It was great. We had apples growing out of fence posts here,” Wassen said. “It was a great spring, no wet weather, and we didn’t have any buds die off.”
Wassen has a young 5-acre organic orchard, most of it planted in 2008, that he is expanding.
“We had 40 bins this year and we’re shooting for 100 in a few years,” Wassen said. He said the harvest this year was about 40 percent more than in the past.
Like other growers, Wassen said the power outage during the July fires threatened his crop.
“We had to do some irrigation gymnastics when the power went out for nine days. We couldn’t get any water out of the canal because the pump wasn’t working,” he said.
He figured out a way to siphon water from the irrigation canal into a 100-gallon spray tank mounted on a tractor “and watered each of the 2,500 trees by hand for about a week.
At that point, Wassen drove to Everett to rent a generator to run his irrigation pump, and within a couple of days the power came back on.
“It was a lot of extra work,” Wassen said.
Wassen presses 95 percent of his apples for cider, but still has excess apples that he can’t sell or give away this year, and said he is considering donating them to horse owners.