To appreciate the importance the next several weeks hold for local apple orchards, consider that the pick-your-own season is to farm stands what “The Nutcracker” is to dance companies. A major percentage of Massachusetts fruit farms’ annual revenue comes from the success of this seasonal tradition and the many visitors from near and far who consider apple picking an inviolable part of their yearly routine.
What’s different, however, is that the success of a ballet doesn’t hinge upon rainfall totals or other climatological events. Farms, of course, do.
Last year, the problem was drought. “We watched our fields dry up,” remembered Michael Smolak of Smolak Farms in North Andover.
According to the US Drought Monitor, in mid-August of 2022, all of Eastern Massachusetts was under extreme drought; the rest of the state was classified as severe drought. This year, the same monitor reflects that not a single town or county in the Northeast is suffering from drought.
Instead, farms have had to contend with the aftermath of a severe cold snap in February, an unseasonable frost in mid-May, and heavy rains throughout June and July.
“This has been a challenging growing season for all crops, due to a lot of extreme weather conditions this year,” said Kate Smith, manager of C.N. Smith Farm in East Bridgewater. “We got through the freeze on May 18 by implementing frost protection such as irrigation, orchard heaters, and wind machines. Despite all those challenges, we are fortunate enough to have a very nice and large crop of apples this year, fingers crossed.”
In general, said Smolak, local apple growers are feeling optimistic. Inclement weather earlier in the year — especially the frost in May — affected stone fruits such as peaches, plums, and cherries and, to a lesser extent, berries, more than apples.
“This year there were no peaches, plums, or cherries growing anywhere in New England,” Smolak said. “But we’ve got a bumper apple crop.”
Smolak Farms augments its farm stand offerings and pick-your-own apple and berry options with hayrides, animal encounters, birthday parties, and farm-to-table dinner events throughout the harvest season, which is a critical approach for farms that want to stay solvent, according to Linda Hoffman, proprietor of Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard.
“Farming is getting more and more difficult, between climate change, weather, the increasing expenses of materials and labor,” said Hoffman. “We’re all needing to expand our offerings.” She sees many orchards, including her own, looking for creative ways to draw in more visitors as they prepare for fall.
Old Frog Pond Farm will host its 18th annual sculpture exhibit concurrent with apple-picking season. This year the farm is partnering with Artisans Asylum, a Boston-based nonprofit, for a show themed “The Stuff of Dreams.” Along with picking apples, “Visitors can stroll among over 40 sculptures from 30 artists,” Hoffman said. “We’ll host poetry events, live music, and community fires on Sundays throughout the fall as well.”
Features such as these entice visitors to stay at the farm stand longer, she said. “It doesn’t take much time to pick all the apples you need. If people come all the way out to the country, they want to make a day of it.”
“It was a big relief to see the apples ripening up,” said Miranda Russell of Russell Orchards in Ipswich. “They are a much better size than we dared to hope for after May’s bad freeze.” She and her staff see families and groups of friends who return year after year for their annual apple-picking ritual, often including a hayride through the orchards and a snack of cider and doughnuts afterward.
A stretch of temperate late-summer and fall weekends will ensure their seasonal success, Russell said. “When it’s a perfect fall weekend, everyone says, ‘Kids, get in the car, we’re going apple picking.’ And we depend on those six weeks from early September to mid-October.”
It’s not only the weather that impacts the apple crops, Smith, of East Bridgewater, explained. Some popular varieties, such as Honeycrisp, flourish in two-year cycles, with a year of abundant growth followed by a year of lighter production. Fortunately, this is a good year for Honeycrisp.
“The apple-picking experience is just pure fall fun,” Smith said, ticking off the numerous seasonal attractions that draw visitors to C.N. Smith Farm: a train room staged with fall-themed animatronics and decorations, warm apple cider doughnuts, specialty beverages, and ice cream. Visitors can take a hayride around the farm and see goats, chickens, and rabbits.
Parlee Farms in Tyngsborough is one of many regional farms that augment the harvest season with special festivals, including its annual apple festival coming up on Sept. 9. It will feature live music, a food truck, fresh fruit desserts, and beer. Throughout the apple-picking season, visitors have access to the animal barns and an enormous sandbox that appeals to young children.
“Apple picking should be an outing for the whole family,” said Ellen Parlee, who owns Parlee Farms along with her husband, Mark.
“Agriculture today is about the experience,” agreed Smolak, of North Andover. “People visit us and then go home and tell their neighbors about the day they spent here picking apples. You cannot make a good living selling produce. We need to get people out here enjoying themselves.”
IF YOU GO
Most apple orchards offer apple picking from approximately Labor Day through mid-October, often preceded by other pick-your-own crops. Check the website or call before you go to see what’s available.
95 Farwell Road, Tyngsborough
C.N. Smith Farm
325 South St., East Bridgewater
Old Frog Pond Farm
38 Eldridge Road, Harvard
143 Argilla Road, Ipswich
315 S. Bradford St., North Andover
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.