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Apples survive, even prosper, through challenging growing season

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Harvest results suggest local orchards stood up well to the winter-like weather Norfolk County endured at the end of April.

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Local growers and industry representatives report a decent apple harvest so far, while earlier this summer the sweet and sour cherry crop seemed largely unaffected.

“We got through the frost without huge damage,” says Brett Schuyler of Schuyler Farms in Simcoe, manager of 1,400 acres of orchards and tender-fruit crops.

“The apple harvest looks pretty good right now.”

Hayden Dooney, general manager of the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association, says local crops didn’t entirely escape the ravages of a challenging growing season, one featuring hard frost and heavy snowfall near the end of April and warm, wet conditions throughout the summer with the occasional hailstorm thrown in for good measure.

Frost damage, Dooney said, was especially noticeable in low-lying areas. Orchards hit by frost produce stunted fruit and reduced yields. Apples damaged by hail are diverted to sauce and juice production.

Unlike previous years however, Dooney said the spring frost didn’t drastically reduce the harvest. He estimates the apple crop in Norfolk this fall will be about 90 per cent of what it was in 2020, which was a good crop year.

Of greater concern, Dooney said, was the warm, moist summer just passed. There were significant outbreaks of fire blight, he said, which forced farmers to respond to diseased branches and limbs with diligent pruning. He said vigilance in this area will continue in 2022.

Also of significance is the reduced size of this year’s honeycrisp apple harvest. Dooney said this was expected because last year’s yield was exceptional.

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“Honeycrisp has a tendency, when you have a larger crop, to take a rest the following year, and that’s what we’re seeing this year,” he said of one of the more popular eating apples in Ontario.

“Next season, we should have a good honeycrisp crop. It should be back with a vengeance. But this year it is down a little bit. There’s a lot of rage about honeycrisp. There are a lot of honeycrisp lovers out there.”

The Ontario Apple Growers represents 200 commercial producers. In a news release, OAG says yields will be down about 15 per cent this year. Cited as a factor was April’s cold snap.

“If you have your heart set on a certain variety, make sure you don’t put off getting your apples for too long,” says Cathy McKay of Port Perry, chair of the Ontario Apple Growers.

“The good news is that apples are maturing a few days to almost a week sooner than usual this year, so it’s a great time to take advantage of nice fall weather and plan a visit to a farm market or pick-your-own operation.”

Lisa Herrewynen, NFGA’s senior manager of operations, says the association’s Apple Place outlet on the Queensway East in Simcoe should have fresh local apples well into next spring.

NFGA has invested in “controlled atmosphere storage” which, Herrewynen explains, suspends the ripening process by “putting apples to sleep.” That way, she said, they always taste like they just came off the tree.

NFGA represents 16 major apple operations with 1,500 acres under tillage. NFGA members produce about 25 different varieties, nine of which are considered mainstream with the apple-consuming public. Production in 2020, Dooney said, amounted to 36 million pounds.

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