The trees may be bare, but there’s still a lot of action at Vermont’s apple orchards.
This time of year, growers are packing fruit for sale, and putting the rest of the crop in long-term storage to sell through the spring.
They also have some reason to celebrate, as prices as strong and much of the crop survived last spring’s hard frosts.
A conveyer belt at Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall moves the fruit in rhythmic precision, and sorts them by size. Then each apple is inspected by hand for minor damage or imperfections. Manager Eric Boire points to a small mark on the side of one red Empire apple.
"This is actually frost damage from the spring, from the very cold spring we had – teardrop frost damage that deformed the apple," he says.
Boire explains that the ones with blemishes sell for less.
"And the unfortunate thing is there’s nothing wrong with the apple. It’s perfectly edible. However, apples sell on what they look like not what they taste like," he says.
Sunrise sells from 120,000 to 140,000 bushels a year. Although some of the crop got hit by frost and hail, the orchard had a relatively good year. That was welcome news after a few tough harvests.
"We’ve had three bad years in a row prior to this. Three years ago we got wiped out by hail. Two years ago the frost wiped us out – not wiped us out but took a very, very large portion of the crop. Last year: wiped out by hail. So the fact we have some apples to go to bat with is a nice change, for Sunrise anyway," Boire says.
And that puts the Vermont producer, and others in the Champlain Valley, in a good competitive position.
Steve Justis is a former apple specialist with the state Agency of Agriculture and now is executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association. He says last spring’s fluky weather was harder on apple producers in other states.
"We had fairly sporadic damage around the state. But compared to some of the other states, like particularly New York had about a 50 percent crop loss, and Michigan had about a devastating 95 percent crop," he says. "So we did better than most other states.’
Justis says temperatures were way above normal in February and March. Trees put out flowers early, but were then hit hard by frost.
The Champlain Valley saw less damage than growers in the southern Connecticut Valley who did lose more of their crop.
But overall, Justis says, prices are strong for Vermont producers.
"The prices have been good, the wholesale prices and of course the direct market prices in the fall," he says. "So the prices are up."
Most large-scale growers store their apples in controlled atmosphere warehouses. The airtight rooms are keep cool, and oxygen levels are reduced to keep the fruit fresh.
Crisp apples can then be sold through the winter.
And at Sunrise Orchards, Eric Boire says there are plenty of apples in storage – and plenty left to sell.
"We were lucky enough to have a three-quarters crop," he says. "Having apples this year is nice. We’re quite popular."