Mar 19, 2020
New England apple growers face realities of COVID-19, other challenges

New England’s fruit growers know what it is like to be vulnerable to the forces of nature. Whether it is a new pest from some distant part of the globe or a sudden hailstorm in July, every year presents periods of uncertainty and challenge in the orchard.

The size of this year’s crop will in large part be determined by how the orchards make it through the next two months. March’s unseasonably warm temperatures to date put the tree fruit crop at a higher-than-normal risk.

If the trees blossom prematurely, they are more vulnerable to frost damage later on. Apple trees typically blossom in early May, and they can withstand a light freeze, to about 28°F. Anything colder will kill the buds.

Peaches are even more vulnerable than apples, as they blossom first. In 2016, an early bloom followed by a single cold night in late April wiped out the entire New England peach crop. Peaches are an important crop for many farms, accounting for as much as one-third of some orchards’ income.

So apple growers are hoping it stays on the cool side for the next few weeks to slow the season down. Yet like every New England business and industry, orchards are also now contending with the COVID-19 virus.

For farms like Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts, income from their store and restaurant is critical at this time of year. Until this past weekend, Pine Hill’s restaurant is typically packed on weekends. Now the restaurant’s doors are shut and its employees sent home.

At the same time, growers are scrambling now to get their agricultural workers lined up for the new season.

Workers are already needed on some farms, and the process of applying to the federal H2A agricultural labor program can take months in the best of circumstances.

Blue Hills Orchard in Wallingford, Connecticut, sells most of its apples wholesale through Stop & Shop, Market Basket, and Walmart, including Empire apples now that are in excellent condition, says owner Eric Henry. But Henry is concerned about the early bud break, “and getting my five Jamaican guest workers next week to prune, plant, and prepare for the season.”

It’s not too early to worry about whether sufficient numbers of workers will arrive here in time to pick the fall crop. Late Monday, for example, the U.S. State Department announced that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and all U.S. consulates in Mexico will suspend routine immigrant and non-immigrant visa services starting today, March 18, until further notice.

EverCrisp apples grown in New Enland.

In Jamaica, the Kingston embassy is closed due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19. They don’t expect even limited operations to come back until early April.

Despite the uncertainty about the 2020 crop, some of the best New England apples from the 2019 harvest are still available at many stores and farm stands. Pine Hill, for example, still has beautiful, crisp, Baldwin, EverCrisp, Golden Delicious, Mutsu (Crispin), and Northern Spy, as well as classics like Macoun and McIntosh.

Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Connecticut, reopened its Apple Barrel store for the season on Saturday, with a good supply and variety of apples, including Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Granny Smith, Idared, Jonagold, Macoun, McIntosh, Mutsu, and Red Delicious.

The situation has been changing daily, but there remain multiple ways that people can purchase New England apples. New England McIntosh and Empire can be found at most farm stands and many grocery stores. Many orchards ship apples (consult our Orchard Finder).

Buell’s Orchard in Eastford, Connecticut, is taking orders by email, and bringing them out to people’s cars. Buell’s supply of apples includes Braeburn, Cameo, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Idared, Jonagold, McIntosh, and Mutsu.

These are just a few examples. Be sure to call ahead to find out the best way to purchase apples from your favorite orchard.

Growers Dave and Matt Shearer at Pine Hill are enthusiastic about a new apple from Ohio, EverCrisp. It is a sweet, crispy, late-season apple that stores well. It’s one of those apples, like Idared and Suncrisp, whose flavor improves in storage.

EverCrisp was developed in 2008 from Honeycrisp and Fuji parents. It has dense flesh like Fuji but the light crispness and juiciness of Honeycrisp.

Virus or not, we still have to eat, and we now find ourselves with more time for activities like baking.

New England Apples

Photo at top: New England-grown Cameo apples. Photos: Russell Steven Powell


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