This summer’s unrelenting drought and recurring heat waves may actually have you looking forward to the cooler fall days and all the fun that comes with autumn in New England. But if apple picking is on your to-do list in the coming months, you’ll likely still be contending with the drought.
So what exactly does the lack of rain mean for this fall’s apple crop?
By August, farmers said, apples have already begun to line the branches at their orchards, on schedule to be harvested throughout September and October. But the extreme heat we’ve experienced this summer means that the apples are at risk of sunburn, which can cause blemishes that render the fruit unmarketable. Certain popular varieties, including Honeycrisp apples, are particularly sensitive to the searing heat and the high levels of UV radiation that accompanies it.
“You’ve got to have good quality,” said Mark Tuttle, the president of Breezelands Orchards in Warren, meaning a big, juicy fruit with no blemishes. “If you have nice big apples and lots of them, we do better.”
There are sprays and other sun protectants that farmers can use to protect their crops, Tuttle said. But he noted that sun damage is a new problem for many New England apple farmers.
The drought also means that this year’s apples will be significantly smaller than last year’s apples, which were grown during a much wetter season. (Last summer had the wettest July ever recorded in Massachusetts.)
“This year there’s going to be a lot of smaller apples, so things are going to be adversely affected,” Tuttle said. When the end of the season rolls around, he added, “I don’t think the money is going to materialize.”
Though some farmers are being hit hard, the extent to which the drought will affect crops varies from one farm to the next, said Clarkdale Fruit Farms owner Ben Clark, who also serves as the president of the Massachusetts Fruit Growers Association. Farms that get their water from the Connecticut River tend to be less affected than farms that use well or surface water. And pick-your-own farms, which tend to be concentrated in the more densely-populated eastern Massachusetts will likely have an easier time than commercial wholesale orchards.
Despite the weather conditions this summer, “people have decent crops,” Clark said. “[They’re] maybe a little smaller than last year when we had all the rain, but overall the fruit is still going to be good.”
In some cases, he said, the heat can actually make fruit sweeter. Particularly for softer crops like peaches and strawberries, “the flavor is wonderful because the sugars are concentrated with the lack of rain,” Clark said. “So that is the one benefit of a drought.”
As the impact of climate change becomes rapidly more apparent, Clark said, it’s all the more important that farmers learn to adapt to weather patterns that are not only more extreme, but more unpredictable.
“This is the driest, hottest [summer] that we’ve had both in my and my father’s memory,” Clark said. “Six years ago, we had a pretty good drought — not quite as hot or as long as this — and of course, last year was one of the wettest years. So as farmers, we’re definitely aware of climate change and the impacts of it on farms and we’re really trying to do what we can to become resilient.”
The good news is … there will be apples. And they’ll arrive right on schedule this fall. So be sure to go get some like you normally would, even if they are smaller this year.
“That’s what I tell everybody: Come buy some apples, buy some peaches or buy some cider, you know, just support us,” Tuttle said. “Come and stop at a farm stand and get local fruit. Eat local, buy local. It’s very important.”