Local apple growers are urging residents and visitors to come early this year if they want to enjoy the limited crop of fresh apples before they’re gone.
Warm weather in late winter followed by freezing spring temperatures took a heavy toll on a pair of Sauk County’s apple producers.
“We’re so used to having a huge amount of apples that this year when we were out in the orchard, we were like, ‘Where are they this year?’” said Betty Thiessen, who owns Ski-Hi Fruit Farm south of Baraboo.
The state’s apple crop this year is expected to be around 20 million tons of apples, down more than 60 percent from last year’s crop of 51.4 million tons, according to estimates from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Ski-Hi Fruit Farm on Ski-Hi Road has 8,000 trees with about 40 acres in production. It will open today with the farm’s big-selling apples like McIntosh, Cortland, honey crisp and empires. Thiessen said last year her employees picked 100 bushels of McIntosh apples, but this year they only found 16 bushels. She said 18 bushels equal 40 pounds of apples.
“We’re definitely not going to have a surplus of apples this year,” Thiessen said. “We will have enough for our cider, pies and turnovers, but that’s it.”
Anna Maenner, executive director of Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, said not all orchards will stay open as long this year as they have in the past because of the reduced yields.
“The bottom line is we’re going to be short on apples this year,” Thiessen said. “We definitely want people to stop out and see us but we may not be open until November this year.”
The warm weather in March woke up the trees in the orchard and got them going on their regular cycle, but then cold temperatures stunted their growth.
“It really depends on where the tree was planted in the orchard,” Maenner said. “If it was low in the orchard where the frost collects, it may not have received as much sunlight as the trees that were planted on the higher ground of the orchard.”
Then came the drought, which heavily impacted orchards without irrigation systems. At Ski-Hi, crews individually watered their young trees to keep them from dying.
“If a tree is too stressed because of the heat, it will either drop its fruit or produce smaller fruit,” Maenner said.
Dan Licht, who owns Licht Orchard about five miles south of North Freedom, said his apples were ready to be picked about three weeks ago. He opened his orchard to customers two weeks ago.
He has 1,200 trees on eight acres of land and sells McIntosh, Cortland, Gala and honey gold and empire apples.
Like Thiessen’s fruit farm, Licht Orchard is not pick-your-own.
“If people want apples they better come early this year,” he said. “We usually stay open until Thanksgiving, but it all depends on our sales. We could close in late October because this has been the poorest year for us in apple production.”