Growers survive wet spring with promising apple yields

Managing Editor

(Sept. 29, 2015) As apple growers in the Mid-Atlantic region harvest a good crop in general, the year has not been without challenges.
Growers are reporting good yields and better than average quality.
But a wet spring and summer in much of the area brought in heavy disease pressure on the young fruit, compounding growers’ spray schedules.
“If I was a new farmer and I had this spring, I probably would have pushed my trees out,” said Christopher Black of Catoctin Mountain Orchards in Thurmont, Md.
With a third of their average annual rainfall coming in June, Black said fire blight and apple scab were two particular diseases they had trouble with this year.
The heavy disease pressure forced more frequent sprays to keep ahead of disease adding to production costs.
“With it being so wet, spores were populating better than they would in the lab,” he said. “It was a pathologist’s dream. They were finding diseases easily.”
In Virginia, many Frederick County growers dealt with bitter rot problems earlier this month due mainly to extended wetting periods in mid-May, according to Virginia Tech tree fruit pathologist, Keith Yoder.
Fruit scab was another serious concern for growers near the Winchester, Va., research and Extension center after 47 continuous wetting hours in early June, Yoder said in his disease update blog during the growing season.
At Fifer Orchards in Camden Wyoming, Del., Bobby Fifer said the rain in the spring and early summer played havoc with their spray schedule.
“It felt like a lot of times we were dodging raindrops and get on some sprays,” he said.
The loss from disease and brown marmorated stink bug damage, Fifer said, is about 50 percent, about 20 percent more than where he’d like it to be.
“You hate to see it,” Fifer said, standing at a bin of unsaleable red delicious apples. “Half as many come out here than come in.”
All the early rain increased the size of a lot of their apples, Fifer added, which might sound like good news but in reality is more of a challenge.
Since they focus the bulk of their wholesale sales on smaller apples for schools and other institutional uses, the more than normal larger apples has them looking for other buyers.
“We’ve built our marketing around what we can do,” Fifer said, adding they aim for early season sales before states to the north begin heavy harvesting. “It’s not like we don’t have the fruit, but with our marketing, it’s a hurdle we have to get over.”
On the postive side, Fifer said he’s seeing better than normal color on some varieties and flavor is great. 
“It’s a good average-yeilding crop,” he said. “I can’t really complain.”
Black said they’re harvesting a bumper crop of apples with size, color and quality running about average compared to what they’ve had in past years. He said the good yield came from their decision not to do any chemical thinning in the spring — the first time in decades — when it seemed trees were dropping enough blossoms on their own due to winter damage.
“It was a coin toss,” Black said. “We gambled, did no chemical thinning at all but had to do more hand thinning in the summer.”
Black rated damage from brown marmorated stinkbug as “minimal” compared to a few years ago when nearly all the crop was lost.
“We’re seeing some damage but nothing like what it has been,” Black said.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences recently reported the state’s apple crop to be “excellent” including one of the finest Golden Delicious crops in years. VDACS said apple sales have grown in foreign markets but also within the state.
Dr. Greg Peck, Virginia Tech horticulture professor said varieties better suited for the fresh market are gaining more attention from growers.
“There’s a big shift happening, and that’s away from processing to fresh market apples. These would be the varieties that we’re used to seeing in the supermarket,” said Peck. “Varieties like Gala, Fuji and now Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious and those varieties that are more typically sold for fresh consumption” are becoming more popular with growers.
“Those apple varieties tend to command a higher price back to the growers than the processing varieties, and so that’s why that’s happening.”
(Editor’s note: AFP Correspondent Jane W. Graham contributed to this report.)