A chill strikes some N.J. apple growers

Michael Russo at Russo's Orchard Lane Farm in Chesterfield, N.J., with his niece Caitlyn Miller, 5. Many of the farm's apple trees were damaged by spring frost.
Michael Russo at Russo's Orchard Lane Farm in Chesterfield, N.J., with his niece Caitlyn Miller, 5. Many of the farm's apple trees were damaged by spring frost. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 04, 2012

The freezing temperatures hit four months ago, but their impact is being felt now.

At Russo's Orchard Lane Farm in Chesterfield, Burlington County, Michael Russo looks across sprawling fields of apple trees - and counts the cost.

The Stayman winesap, golden delicious, and black Arkansas were decimated, but the red delicious and McIntosh appeared largely unaffected.

"People come here to pick their own apples in late September and October," Russo, 45, said. "But there won't be as many to pick.

"They might come back with half a basket instead of two baskets."

Across parts of New Jersey, New York, Michigan, and other states, spring freezes and July hail and wind damaged many orchards, likely depressing the nation's overall apple production this year by 14 percent, a U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast said.

As a result, the price of apples, juice, and cider will probably edge up slightly, farmers and officials predicted.

New Jersey produced 35 million pounds of apples in 2011 and will likely bring in a million pounds less this year, the forecast said.

Pennsylvania largely escaped weather damage and is expected to turn out 481 million pounds of apples, an increase over last year's 458 million. Also unscathed was Virginia, which anticipates 230 million pounds, up from 220 million in 2011.

But New York - the nation's second-highest-yielding apple-growing region after Washington state - is set to produce less than half of last year's total: 590 million pounds compared with 1.2 billion, the forecast said. And Michigan, ordinarily the third-largest-producing state, will be down drastically: 105 million pounds compared with 985 million in 2011.

"The weather has been really weird," said Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, an 11,000-member nonprofit trade association representing the majority of the state's farmers and farm-related businesses.

"We had frost and hail storms that hit in a spotty way, affecting some farms while leaving others five miles away totally fine," he said. "We'll be off on apples but not everywhere."

Though the weather wasn't "a real issue for some, it nailed others like the grim reaper," added Gary Mount, owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton and a board member of the New Jersey Apple Industry Advisory Council, which markets and promotes apples statewide.

The crop destruction "could be worse than the [USDA] numbers indicate," said William Walker, an agricultural marketing specialist for the state Department of Agriculture. Some growers "had a 50 percent loss, and that means apples and cider will be more expensive."

Orchards were affected by several freezes in March and April, said Win Cowgill, editor of Horticultural News and professor and area fruit agent for the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County. Other farms, south of Trenton, were hit by hail and straight-line winds.

Still, "there are a lot of good apples out there," Cowgill said. "Most [orchards] in North Jersey have a good crop."

Consumers who want to pick their own "should call ahead to check on availability and times," he added.

The price of apples generally varies from $1.19 to $1.59 a pound at farm markets, but can be twice that in supermarkets, where the cost of picking, packing, shipping, and grading certain sizes is figured in.

With the harvest of some apples already under way - a week or two earlier than normal - farmers are taking into account rising expenses and beginning to set prices.

Those calculations won't be necessary for some, though.

In Cinnaminson, there are no apples for picking at Taylor's Riverside Homestead Farm, said Suzanne Day, one of the operators.

"We had a warm winter and I remember seeing the blossoms on the trees early this year - way too early - and then the frost came," Day said. "We're a little disappointed."

Taylor's and many other farms, including Russo's, have other crops to fall back on: tomatoes, peppers, lima beans, eggplants, pumpkins, squash, and potatoes.

In Freehold, the Battleview Orchards "lost quite a bit [of the apples] to frost and more to hail," said Lisa Applegate, co-owner of the farm. "A lot of it has to do with the elevation of the farm and temperatures.

"The last big frost was 2002," she said. "We think of it happening every 10 years. It is what it is."

The price of apples at Battleview Orchards will not likely rise from the current $1.25 a pound, though the cost of cider, produced there, "may go up a little," Applegate said. In the supermarket, "the price of apples can be $3 a pound."

Orchards in Pennsylvania were more fortunate than those in New Jersey, New York, and Michigan.

"We escaped by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin," said Larry Wright, owner of Wright Orchards in Chestnut Ridge, Bedford County, and a member of the board of the U.S. Apple Council, a national apple-industry organization with members from apple-producing states. "We came through narrowly" because of topography and less severe weather.

In New Jersey, many farms also escaped serious problems. At Terhune Orchards in Princeton, owner Gary Mount was expecting the damage there "to be really bad" but was pleasantly surprised. "I've seen how hail can cut up apples and tomatoes.

"There have been times when the hail and wind is so bad, you'll go to the orchard and find half an apple on the tree," he said. "But our crop this year is normal or only slightly less than normal."

"Prices may be up a little, but that would be more due to normal cost-of-production increases than any regional drop in supply," Mount said.

Like the prices, buying habits also have changed over the years. Consumers used to buy two baskets, each with 20 pounds of apples, and use some in cooking, he said. Now, with less used in cooking, they buy five to 15 pounds of apples.

"But the biggest change for us this year is the apple crops were early," Mount said. "They started early and the harvest is early - by a week or two.

"We have pick your own, and we started last weekend and will go through the end of October," he said. "In a normal year, we'd go into early November."

Apple growers who were more affected by severe weather seem to be taking it stride. "It's almost cyclical," Applegate said. "You have your ups and downs. I would say this year is a down."

Added Russo: "This is typical for farmers. You take a gamble every day. It's like going to Atlantic City and putting your money on red or black."

Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

For more information on pick-your-own locations in New Jersey: http://www.state.nj.us/cgi-bin/agriculture/jerseyfresh/search.pl?type=all&apples=Apples

In Pennsylvania: http://www.pickyourown.org/PAeast.htm

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