The summer drought that’s taxed farmers from Berwick to Bowdoinham may take a toll on this year’s apple harvest. Commercial growers in southern and central Maine, the heart of the state’s apple region, are focused on the next few weeks to determine the nature, size and quality of the fruit.
After last year’s bumper crop, it was expected that this year’s yield would be less impressive, but how much less? That’s up to Mother Nature.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world, it’s a matter of sizing,” said Andy Ricker, owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, based in Turner, where 30 percent of his apple trees are irrigated.
“Some varieties will struggle with size, macs and galas. It all depends on how much rain we get in the next two weeks. In two to three weeks, we will pick,” said Ricker. “If we have a wet September we’ll be OK.”
Compared to Massachusetts, wilting under an extreme drought, Maine’s commercial orchards are faring well, according to industry trackers.
“The northern states seem to be in the best shape. From the center on up, there is good moisture,” said Russell Powell, a spokesman for the New England Apple Association, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.
“We are getting good reports from Vermont, central New Hampshire and central Maine. Maine will do pretty well this year region wide,” said Powell, author of the book “Apples of New England: A User’s Guide.”
Though apples may be smaller than usual, and in some cases not as colorful, a dry spring and summer has caused little damage to spring blooms. On the upside, the drought kept harmful hail storms at bay.
But this year’s mixed forecast is tricky.
Home orchardists, watching apples drop in August, may be fooled by what they see.
At first blush “apples seem to be ripening early, but they are not ripening, they are stressed because of the lack of water,” said John Bunker, an agricultural historian who tends to an heirloom orchard in Palermo. “The tree is shedding the apple because it doesn’t want it, it’s a nuisance. It is taxing the tree.”
Where orchards are planted matters, said Bunker.
“Commercial orchards, as a rule, have the best locations with the best soils because people were smart,” said Bunker. “There is probably a pretty good chance there will be a decent apple crop.”
Ricker, who will start to pick McIntoshes in early September, says the popular cortlands and honeycrisp have been watered and will thrive.
But don’t expect them right on time. In Ricker’s orchards that span eight towns and three counties, the hot, dry weather signals a late harvest.
“This year, apples are maturing a few days later,” he said.
But more crucial than timeliness, for this apple wholesaler, is girth.
“The market demands a size, or apples won’t make grade,” said Ricker. “If they are not 2½ inches, most grocery stores won’t touch it.”
Right now, Ricker’s apples measure between 1¼ inches to 3 inches.
Climatic shifts might affect supplies well into next year.
“I am concerned about how well our fruit will hold up in storage because a large part of the apple crop is stored in refrigeration until winter or spring,” said Renae Moran, tree fruit specialist with the University of Maine. “Apples need wet soil to take up calcium from the soil. When they don’t get enough calcium, they can lose quality during storage.”
She is taking a wait and see approach.
“At this time, it’s hard to predict how well apples will store, but there will be enough fruit for an abundant pick-your-own season. I suspect we have enough apples in the state to supply supermarkets well into March.”