Local orchards celebrate fruits of ‘a perfect apple year’
Steve Lanphear picks apples Wednesday afternoon at Sentinel Farm in Belchertown. The Lanphears have owned the farm since 1985. Purchase photo reprints »
Steve Lanphear, right, takes a break from picking apples Wednesday afterrnoon while his wife, Meg Lanphear, carries apple crates at Sentinel Farm in Belchertown. The Lanphears have owned the farm since 1985. Purchase photo reprints »
Steve Lanphear, left, picks apples off trees Wednesday afternoon while his wife, Meg Lanphear, sorts through fallen apples to find the best ones at Sentinel Farm in Belchertown. The Lanphears have owned the farm since 1985. Purchase photo reprints »
Steve Lanphear, co-owner of Sentinel Farm in Belchertown, picks apples Wednesday afternoon. The Lanphears have owned the farm since 1985. Purchase photo reprints »
Meg Lanphear sorts through apples that have fallen from the tree at Sentinel Farm in Belchertown. Purchase photo reprints »
Steve Lanphear, left, picks apples off trees while his wife, Meg Lanphear, sorts through fallen apples to find the best ones at Sentinel Farm in Belchertown. The Lanphears have owned the farm since 1985. Purchase photo reprints »
When Valley farmers harvesting apples say their biggest problem is that there are too many beautiful apples ready to pick at once, that’s a good year.
“For us, it’s a challenge to pick them before they drop. Once they start dropping, it’s like it’s raining,” said Stephen Lanphear, who owns Sentinel Farm in Belchertown with his wife, Margaret. “This year is a bumper crop.”
Lanphear said the credit goes to the mild spring and the summer that included plenty of rain and hot weather “right when we needed it.” Several of the farm’s 24 varieties started to drop about a week ago, he said.
“It’s been a very good year, particularly in comparison to last year,” he said. In 2012, fruit trees blossomed early due to a warm spring and then many buds were killed off during a late frost in April.
“A lot of orchards, including ours, really suffered,” he said. Sentinel Farm survived better than most because the 4-acre orchard includes some hardier varieties, but they still only harvested about half of their normal crop in 2012.
With the memories of that dismal harvest still fresh in their minds, orchard owners all around the Pioneer Valley are thoroughly enjoying the best apple season they’ve had in years. And so are their apple-picking customers.
“We weren’t even open for pick-your-own last year. We didn’t have enough apples,” said Ann Barker, co-owner of Quonquont Farm at 9 North St. in Whately. “A lot of our regulars were very pleased to see we have apples again this year.”
Only a week or two into the harvest season, many of the state’s 369 apple farms are reporting an above-average harvest and some said the fruit is bigger than normal, according to a press release from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
In 2011, the state’s apple crop — dominated by local favorites like McIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Gala and Honeycrisp — was worth more than $19.4 million. Massachusetts ranks 12th nationally for the total value of its apple production.
The Lanphears never take a good harvest for granted because it has taken many years and a lot of hard work to bring the old Cottage Street orchard they bought in 1985 back to life. A little over a decade ago, they started working to revitalize the old trees and replaced a couple hundred that were too poor to produce fruit, Lanphear said.
Now, they sell apples at three farmers markets and offer apple picking on the weekends. And the trees, loaded with apples, are ready for apple pickers, he said. “This weekend is going to be the prime weekend to pick McIntosh,” he said.
Robert Fitz, co-owner of Small Ones Farm in Amherst, said he and his wife, Sally, haven’t had enough apples to offer pick-your-own apples for years, but they’re considering it this year.
“Last year was a total freeze out, this year is going like gangbusters,” he said. The 500-tree organic orchard at 416 Bay Road is probably going to produce a quarter to a third more apples than an average year, he estimated.
“And I think the flavor is really coming through,” he said.
Larry Godard, who co-owns Godard’s Red Hen Farm in Florence with his wife, Sue, said last year they lost 90 percent of their apple crop due to the late freeze. He said their young wine making business, Mineral Hills Winery, helped them get by financially, “but it did hurt our bottom line.”
This year, the farmstand at 592 Sylvester Road will have plenty of apples to satisfy customers, Godard said. It’s just the beginning of the picking season now, he said, but people are already starting to call and stop by to ask for hard-to-find varieties of apples, including Liberties, a Macoun hybrid developed in New York.
Godard said periods of wet weather earlier in the summer caused some of the fruit to develop apple scab, a fungus that affects the apple’s skin. “But we do cider and apple wine, so we can still use those apples,” he said.
Jonathan Carr of Hadley is harvesting apples — especially for cider, but of the alcoholic sort. Carr and his wife, Nicole Blum, own an orchard off River Road in Hadley and last year started selling hard cider and an apple pommeau under the brand name Carr’s Ciderhouse. But they lost their 2012 crop to the frost and had to buy apples to press for cider. “This year is definitely our first big harvest, so we’re really excited,” Carr said this week. “It seems like it’s been a perfect apple year.”
Of the 10-acres of apples in the orchard, he said his favorite cider variety, Golden Russet, was prolific. “They’re an old-time cider apple and they make wonderful cider,” he said.
The sugar content, important for making quality cider, seems good this year as well, he said. “I was out testing today and most of the apples are at 14 or 15 percent. The Golden Russets are at 16 percent,” he said. “A high sugar content means more alcohol in the cider, and that translates to a more robust flavor and intensity.”
They may still have to buy apples from other local growers to keep up with the demand for the cider, he said, but that’s not a bad problem to have.
“We’re just grateful to have a great crop,” Carr said.