HARVARD — Phil Rymsha isn’t accustomed to getting tipped for selling a jug of cider. But tending to a meager crop of apple trees on the edge of Johnny Appleseed country, Rymsha will take what he can get.
“Customers are showing kindness,” he said. “They want me to stay in business.”
Rymsha lost 90 percent of this year’s crop at his pick-your-own orchard, Phil’s Apples. A freak March heat wave caused many apples trees to blossom early. That was followed by frost in April and May, which disrupted the growing cycle. Some states, including Maine, were pummeled by hailstorms in June, causing more damage.
The weather chaos — which ravaged some New England orchards while leaving others relatively unscathed — means a good number of apple growers across New England are trying to make the best of a season that started early, and is about to end the same way. And stores that buy apples wholesale say they are attempting to avoid big prices increases for customers at a time of year when the fruit is supposed to be plentiful and cheaper.
“When you are dealing with the elements,” the end result is always uncertain, said Frank Carlson, president of Carlson Orchards in Harvard, where half of his apple crop, planted across 120 acres, was ruined this spring.
“We had a freeze-and-frost combination just when those buds were sensitive,” he said.
Carlson, who owns one of the largest commercial orchards in the state, said he is struggling to keep apple prices at his retail stand stable as wholesale prices increase nationwide.
That’s partly because Michigan, the second-biggest apple growing state after Washington, lost 85 percent of this year’s crop to a deep freeze. On top of that, about 40 percent of New York’s apple harvest was ruined.
By comparison, New England would seem to have fared well by losing an estimated 15 to 20 percent of its crop across the region, said Bar Weeks, executive director of New England Apple Association.
But depending on the location, some orchards had it much worse, and those early overall numbers may have to be revised upward.
“We got shot more times than we thought,” said Carlson, who is still calculating his loss and won’t know the extent of the damage until the end of this month. “It’s hard to predict. I wish I knew what numbers we are picking.”
The combined decrease in local and out-of-state apples is putting pressure on wholesale prices. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the wholesale price for a carton of 80 Massachusetts McIntoshes is up 45 percent this year to about $29.
The price of cider production has tripled because scanty crops in Michigan, New York, and Ontario means cider makers are scrambling to find apples, and paying top dollar to get them.
“Supply is lean and demand continues to grow,” said Steven Rowse, president of New England Apple Products Co. in Leominster, which makes Carlson’s cider.
“Even before the apples were picked, early demand saw wholesale sellers scurrying to buy apples,” said Bob Rondeau, program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, which inspects apples for export.
Large grocers such as Hannaford Supermarkets can afford to absorb some increases and keep apple prices from skyrocketing for consumers, according to Eric Blom, a spokesman for the Maine-based chain.
“Hannaford is well positioned to provide low prices, regardless of what happens in the overall market for produce,” Blom said. “We have substantial buying power on behalf of customers. And we are constantly looking for ways to keep our operating costs down.”
At Big Y supermarkets in Walpole and Franklin, prices for New England apples so far haven’t budged. But as the supply dwindles, that’s expected to change.
“We will have enough so we can get our apple pies out for the holidays. The shortage will likely appear at the start of the new year,” said Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of corporate communications for the Springfield-based chain, which has 30 stores in Massachusetts and 30 in Connecticut.
To keep enough apples on hand, however, Big Y expects to eventually buy some apples from the West Coast, and that means consumers will pay more. “We don’t want to raise prices, but we have to stay in business. If we are paying 30 to 40 percent more, we have to send a portion along to the customer,” D’Amour-Daley said.
At independent markets such as A. Russo & Sons in Watertown, however, apples already have become more expensive for customers. Tony Russo, president of the family-run market, said the price of Massachusetts-grown McIntosh and Macouns have shot up approximately 50 cents a pound this fall to $1.49.
“There is not a lot of fruit,” said Russo, who sympathizes with growers who lost portions of their crops. “We don’t want to press the issue by asking a farmer to reduce the price. . . . I feel bad for the farmers — some don’t have any apples at all.”
“We don’t want price to be an uncomfortable experience for customers. But if you want decent apples, you have to spend more for them,” he said.
Carlson has not raised prices at his pick-your-own operation or retail stand — a half-peck of McIntosh and Cortlands are $5.98, the same as last year.
“It’s a family decision. We want people to come back next year. When you go to a store and you experience a price gouge, you remember it,” he said.
And Weeks, of the New England Apple Association, pointed out that weather-related problems don’t mean this year’s apples are lacking in flavor.
“The crop is pretty darn good for what they had to go through,” she said. “Apples like ginger gold are sweet and delicious right now.”
But you had better act fast to get the tastiest fruit. By mid-September, Carlson was out of the honey crisp and gala apples he offered wholesale, and Macouns may be next.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how the rest of the market season holds up,” he said. “Check back with me Jan. 2.”
Kathleen Pierce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.