Assessing the 2012 New England Apple Crop (and Apple Muffins)

Some New England orchards had outstanding crops in 2012, like Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Some New England orchards had outstanding crops in 2012, like Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell)

IT’S DIFFICULT to draw a single conclusion about this year’s New England apple crop. While the region’s diverse geography and microclimates ensure some variability from year to year, the 2012 season has been more volatile than most. It began with a freak March heat wave that was followed, predictably, by sub-freezing temperatures in April, killing many of the premature blossoms and nascent (young) fruit. Orchards and blocks of trees in low-lying areas with poor air circulation sustained the greatest loss.

Some of the orchards that survived this catastrophe were then hit by hail in June and July, further reducing the size of the region’s crop. Even a brief hailstorm can devastate an orchard, leaving small nicks or pockmarks in the fruit’s skin. Hail makes an apple less pleasing to the eye and compromises its storage ability. But if eaten soon after it is picked the apple’s flavor and texture are unaffected.

Spring and summer were hot, and, while overall the apple crop received plenty of water, there were several long stretches between rains early in the season. This, combined with the early bloom, sped up the ripening process, resulting in a harvest that began one or more weeks sooner than usual, depending on location.

Mid-season varieties like McIntosh were being picked in some orchards as early as Labor Day Weekend, and many pick-your-owns have already closed for the season. The larger orchards growing for the wholesale market are finishing up their harvest earlier than usual as well.

Some New England orchards lost their entire 2012 crop to frost or hail damage, or both. Yet the news was not all bad. Many orchards had beautiful, full crops. Most fell somewhere in between: they had apples, but only 60 percent to 80 percent of a normal crop. When all of the apples are picked, New England in 2012 expects to harvest about 75 percent of a normal crop.

Despite this, New England did well and its growers feel fortunate compared to their peers in New York and Michigan, the country’s second and third largest apple-growing states, respectively, after Washington. New York lost half its crop, Michigan a staggering 85 percent, historic losses resulting from the same weather pattern experienced in New England: premature bloom from a March heat wave followed by a killing April frost.

What should consumers expect due to the earlier and smaller crop in New England and the Northeast?

A shorter season. If you want the orchard experience this fall, you should get there over the next few weekends. Visit our website, New England Apples, to find information about many of the region’s orchards. Call the orchard ahead of time to find out what varieties are ready and to see if pick-your-own is still available.

Dings and dents. With fewer fresh apples around this fall, growers are hoping consumers will accept an occasional blemish or flaw in exchange for an otherwise perfect apple.

Higher fresh cider prices. There simply are not enough juice apples this year, and there is no going to New York or Michigan to supplement the New England crop. The price of juice apples is up accordingly, and is likely to take cider prices with it.

An early end. The wholesale season will likely end early next spring. While there are plenty of fresh apples to go around now and through the holidays, the 2012 New England crop will be sold well before the 2013 crop is ready for harvest next August. In a good year, New England can supply its supermarkets with apples year-round. Many times there is a gap of a month or so between seasons, but the 2012 crop may be gone earlier than usual.

In the meantime, there are plenty of outstanding New England apples ripe for the picking and eating. Enjoy them while you can!

Like many growers, Roy Marks of Wellwood Orchards in Springfield, Vermont, will have apples at his country store through October, despite having just 60 percent of a normal crop. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Like many growers, Roy Marks of Wellwood Orchards in Springfield, Vermont, will have apples at his country store through October, despite having just 60 percent of a normal crop. (Russell Steven Powell)

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IF YOU ARE LOOKING for variety in your apples and can’t get to the orchard, two good options in western New England are River Valley Market in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the Brattleboro Co-op in Vermont. Both have extensive apple displays with many hard-to-find heirlooms like Knobby Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Pitmaston Pineapple.

The best place to find an heirloom apple, naturally, is at the orchard, and you can find out who grows what by visiting Finding New England Apples by Variety. If you know of additional sources for heirlooms in New England, please add them as comments at the end of this post.

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THIS RECIPE for apple muffins was provided by Diane Brzozowski of Hatfield, who made them for runners at the end of Saturday’s Hatfield Harvest 5K Road Race, where they were quickly gobbled up. The original 1996 recipe came from the Healthy Eating for Life Program (HELP), Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

Whole Wheat Apple Muffins

2 c whole wheat flour

1 T baking powder

1/2 t salt

1-1/2 t cinnamon

1/4 t nutmeg

1 egg

3/4 c milk

1/4 c oil

1/4 c honey

1 large McIntosh, Shamrock, or other tart New England apples, cored and chopped

Preheat oven to 375° F. Grease tins for 12 muffins.

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Mix together egg, milk, oil, and honey, and add them to the dry ingredients. Stir until batter is moist but lumpy.

Fill the muffin tins two-thirds full. Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned.

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WEATHER IS just one of the challenges growers face as they guide their crop from spring bloom through harvest in America’s Apple, a new book about apple growing in the United States by Russell Steven Powell.Powell, who has worked in the apple industry for the past 16 years, visited more than 50 orchards across the country gathering information for the book, and interviewed some of the nation’s leading apple researchers.
The hard-cover volume features nearly 50 full-color photographs by Bar Lois Weeks, plus a photographic index of 120 apple varieties grown in the United States (a paperback version, identical except for the photographic index, is available for $19.95).
To learn more, including how to order, visit America’s Apple.