Mary Newey at Hillcrest Orchards in Winterport has been in the apple business nearly all her life. Her father bought the land and planted trees in 1963, so she grew up on an apple orchard.
Decades later, she still gets excited every season. This year, that excitement came early. Hillcrest Orchards opened on Thursday, Aug. 12, the earliest opening date in recent memory.
Apple growers across Maine agreed that this year’s crop is about 10 days to two weeks ahead of schedule, which could create opportunities to lure tourists before Labor Day weekend.
“We had a light winter and some warm weather early on, so things have sped up,” said Jennifer DeChant with the Maine State Pomological Society, a member organization of growers and orchard owners. “We’ll be competing with the last few weeks of beach time, but people shouldn’t wait until the start of fall.”
Apple picking is synonymous with autumn in Maine, but DeChant and others said patrons don’t need to wait until there is frost on the ground to go looking for traditional McIntoshes and other varieties.
Renae Moran, an educator and fruit tree specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said many apple orchards are seeing light but early harvests this year.
“I’m starting to see it with the early varieties and I think it’s going to happen with McIntosh,” she said. “Spring was three weeks early, and a lot of orchards have a light crop because of the freeze in late spring.”
Some apple harvesting already is under way, including at Hillcrest and at Harris Orchards on Wiswell Road in Brewer. Owner Storer Demerchant said his crop looks strong but he doesn’t plan to open until after Labor Day.
“We’ve got lots of apples, but sometimes the early birds get here before they are big enough to pick,” he said.
At Maine-Ly Apples in Dixmont, owner John Olsen said he plans to bring in pickers this week and then open to the public on Aug. 21, which is at least a week ahead of schedule.
“We’ve had a lot of people swinging in already to ask, ‘Are you open yet?’” he said. “It comes with the territory.”
Orchards participate in Maine Apple Sunday every year, which is typically the second Sunday in September and ceremoniously marks the beginning of apple season.
DeChant, however, said the early season is a good opportunity to draw out-of-state visitors to orchards.
Newey said the best part of apple season is seeing familiar faces who come each year but also meeting new visitors who she hopes become repeat customers.
“We work hard out here but we love it,” Newey said Friday. “We look forward to it every year.”