The apples are looking beautiful at Cherry Hill Orchards in New Danville, Pa.
“The color of the apples this year is phenomenal. The cool weather really helped with that,” Ryan Shenk said as customers kept the checkout ladies busy and a young family embarked on its first you-pick adventure at the Lancaster County landmark.
The apple season also started off great at Barber’s Orchard in Franklin, Pa., the only orchard in Venango County.
“We had a beautiful blossom set,” Darlene Barber, the orchard owner, said.
Then Barber, like many western Pennsylvania growers, experienced an apple producer’s nightmare — a late frost around Mothers’ Day when temperatures dropped on consecutive nights to 23 and 19 degrees.
The cold snap took 80 percent of her crop. An orchard 15-20 miles away had its apple blossoms totally wiped out, she said.
“It’s variable,” Extension horticulture educator John Esslinger said of the quantity of apples growers are harvesting this year.
At least in northeastern Pennsylvania, where Esslinger works, Interstate 80 seems to be a rough dividing line for frost damage, with farmers north of the highway suffering but farmers south of it doing fine. Yields have been good, he said, for farmers who escaped the frost.
“We’ve had little disease pressure through most of the summer” because the weather had been dry, he said.
McIntosh and other varieties are turning deep red thanks to the cool nights, he said.
The coloration does not signal maturity but is more attractive to consumers.
Most apples in Esslinger’s region are direct-marketed, and he expects solid sales on the heels of respectable peach purchases. Overall, he expects an average year with quality fruit.
Carolyn McQuiston of Dawson’s Orchards in Enon Valley, Lawrence County, said her harvest has been going extremely well.
“I have nothing to complain about,” she said. The Empire apples had a little rot problem, but otherwise her 15 varieties have been disease-free. She has not seen scab or stink bugs, though she noted the bugs could still be out there unseen.
With 40-degree nights and sunny days, “I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she said. “Prices are kind of down, but that’s to be expected in a good crop year.”
The availability of apples should make them a good value for consumers, she said.
As for Barber in frost-wracked Franklin, it was frustrating to see the wild apples along the roadside survive the frost just fine while her trees lost most of their buds.
The wild trees were obviously never pruned, so the leaves and the wood sheltered the blossoms. Meanwhile, “we take care of our trees, and we pay the price,” Barber said.
Of the remaining apples, only about half will be sold as fruit, Barber said. The rest will have to be pressed into cider.
Barber grows many of the familiar varieties, including Cortland, Gala and McIntosh, as well as less familiar cultivars such as Ida Red, Mutsu, Northern Spy and Power Red.
Fortunately for Barber, her other crops have fared better. She grows strawberries — “we could irrigate them for the frost protection,” she said — though heavy rains shortened the strawberry season by several weeks.
Her blueberries, pumpkins, corn and tomatoes have done well, and she has cabbage yet to be harvested.
Steffenino Orchard in Homer City, Indiana County, focuses exclusively on apples, and has endured its second-worst growing season since its first planting in 2004.
“We were looking good until the very end of May,” John Steffenino said.
He had thinned his trees by the time the unexpectedly late frost hit. He has gotten a mere tenth of the yields possible in a good year.
His 3,000 Honeycrisp trees were the hardest hit of his 5,200 trees. Many of the surviving apples fell from the tree before they could be picked, but “the apples that we have are very nice,” Steffenino said.
Because the bad apples fell before picking, Steffenino feels he has at least not wasted a lot of labor.
Despite the devastation this year, 2012 was actually worse. The difference was “we knew that was coming” because of the early spring last year, while the late frost this year caught him off guard, Steffenino said.
Although the frost hit many farmers hard, its effect on the state apple industry “seems to be more minimal than originally anticipated,” said Julie Bancroft, executive director of the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program. “I’m hearing reports of a really nice crop.”
Sufficient moisture has given apples good size this year, and disease has not been a problem, she said.
Bancroft and the marketing program are focusing their energies this fall on encouraging Pennsylvania retailers to buy Pennsylvania-grown apples.
“Last year, there were shortages in other parts of the country” that contributed to higher prices, while some places are expecting bumper crops this year, she said.
The increased availability of apples this year will lead to more competition among growers to get their fruit sold.
Bancroft said her organization will use in-store displays and incentive programs to push local fruit. They have already put up billboards and prepared materials for direct marketers. This year, they are also launching a big social media effort to increase consumer awareness.
“The market is certainly not what it was a year ago,” said Fred Hess, president of the packer-marketer Hess Brothers Fruit Co. in Leola, Lancaster County.
Michigan and New York have bounced back from weak crops in 2012, he said.
“Pricing is much more normal, if there is such a thing as normal,” he said. “There should be lots of good promotions on apples.”
The apple crop is expected to be about 13 percent larger than last year’s, he said.
The sizing of some varieties has been excellent, but Hess said it is too soon to comment on whether brown marmorated stink bugs will take a significant toll. He credited growers with doing a good job controlling fungus despite the wet weather.
“It’s a beautiful crop of apple. Very tasty, I might add,” he said.
Fortunately for growers hoping to move large quantities of apples, customer interest has been high, according to Emily Hand of Blyler Fruit Farm in Spring Glen. The Dauphin County orchard is harvesting Cortland, Gala, Jonagold, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious and other varieties right now.
USDA reported Monday that 69 percent of Pennsylvania’s apples were harvested, the same as last year at this time and 9 percent ahead of the five-year average.