STOW — The words crisp, firm, and delicious all describe the dark red Gala apples hanging from branches on endless rows of trees at Shelburne Farm.
This year, you can add “early” to that list.
At the Stow orchard, and at others throughout New England, apples are ready to harvest about 10 days earlier than usual and well ahead of Labor Day, the traditional start of the picking season.
While the apples are ready, however, the pickers are another story.
“It’s too hot out; people are still out at the beach,” said Ted Painter, who has owned the Shelburne Farm orchard since 1998.
The orchard, which opened for apple picking a week ago, is home to more than 5,000 apple trees and and 23 varieties of apples. While favorites such as honeycrisp and McLean are still a few days away from their peak picking time, the Galas toward the front of the orchard, gleaming a deep, shiny crimson in the summer sunshine, are ready to go.
“Things are definitely popping up earlier this year,” said Brian Cumming, who maintains the farm’s orchard.
This year’s early ripening, Cumming said, is a result of a stretch of warm weather in March, which kick-started the growing process earlier than usual.
Locally grown apples have already hit supermarket produce aisles and local food stands in large numbers. Allandale Farm, a small farm and produce shop in Brookline, has six varieties in stock and was selling apples purchased from local orchards as early as late July.
“People are so excited to see all of the different apples arriving early,” said Katie Gerlich, a farm staff member, who said the produce stand sells roughly four bushels of apples each week.
“We typically stock up once a week, and by the end of the week [the apples] are all gone.”
But while New England orchards are enjoying an early harvest, most of the nation’s top apple-growing states have seen their trees decimated by drought and late spring frosts.
“New England is doing pretty well, but in other parts of the country it’s a disaster,” said Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association.
Michigan, the nation’s leading apple-picking hub, where Labor Day trips to the cider mill are as historically ingrained in local culture as the Model T, will produce just 3 million bushels of apples this year, compared with 23 million bushels in a typical year, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.
Nationally, the Department of Agriculture expects the smallest apple yield since 1986, down 14 percent from the annual average.
New England has been luckier. Late frosts killed some apple buds on trees throughout the region, but most orchards expect to have about 80 percent of their normal apple yield this year.
“It wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” said Weeks.
And New England largely escaped the devastating damage drought has wreaked on fields left barren throughout much of the nation.
The early harvest has some orchard owners anxious that their customers will miss out on the season’s best fruit by waiting for more autumn-like weather before they decide to go picking.
“Everyone is wringing their hands because people don’t associate warm weather with going out and picking apples,” Weeks said. “People’s perception is of bringing the family out to a pick your own apples . . . [and] dressing up in sweaters and long pants. The weather right now, it’s too beautiful.”
Westford Hill Orchard, in Westford, which usually opens the week after Labor Day, bumped up its opening to the holiday weekend because of the early crop.
“Pretty much everything, across the board, is coming in early this year,” said Oliver Levick, the orchard’s manager.
Levick predicted the highest quality apples among the Westford orchard’s 30 varieties will be gone soon after the Labor Day weekend. He advised those looking for the best fruit to grab a basket and head to an orchard sooner rather than later.
“Last year we were still open on the end of [October], selling great product,” he said. “This year, that’s not going to happen.”
But in the meantime, orchard owners are seeing few pickers as New Englanders lounge on beach blankets for one last week before trading them in for picking baskets.
On Saturday, Shelburne Farm remained largely empty, except for a few people picking peaches, which the orchard also grows.
But Painter said he is confident that over the upcoming holiday weekend, his fields will be full of apple pickers.
“People see these and they pounce,” said Painter as he took a bite out of a crisp Gala. “Once the rush starts, we can’t keep them in the trees.”