One in a series of columns co-written by Tony and Karen Russo, a father-daughter team and former owners of Russo’s in Watertown.
Every season we have a favorite fruit, but if you’re offering us a choice of eating one fruit every day for the rest of our lives, it’s an apple. And now is the perfect time to eat them because local apples are in season and at peak flavor, crunch, and freshness.
New England’s apple farmers are deep in the heart of their harvest. What you might not know is the struggle many of them have experienced this season.
“It’s probably the most challenging crop in 50 years,” said Bill Broderick of Sunny Crest Orchards.
Broderick is the fourth generation on his family’s farm in Sterling. He sells his apples directly to farm stands and wholesalers. We bought his apples for more than 20 years and are consistently impressed by the quality of his product and his knowledge of farming.
In May, Broderick took us through his fields when his apple trees were in full bloom. It is a spectacular site of white clouded blossoms atop rows upon rows of apple trees.
Just a few days later, an unusually late, deep frost hit his apple fields and those across New England, destroying vast amounts of the crop. Broderick lost about 20 percent of his apples that night. And he considers himself lucky because many farmers lost significantly more.
We visited with him in his fields last week where he was harvesting some of his more than 40 varieties, including Macouns (which have ripened earlier than usual), Crimson Crisps, (which are a gorgeous deep red and “tend to be shy croppers”), American Beauty (“an old fashioned sweet heirloom variety”) and the Cortlands, which seem to be the favorite of just about every farmer we poll. They are juicy, crispy and, according to Tony, there is no better apple right off the tree.
Apples are bi-annual plants, meaning they are more abundant on alternating years. Broderick is having an “on” year with more apples than usual, so despite the hardships, he has an abundance of apples. And so does Christian Smith of CN Smith Farm in East Bridgewater.
Smith, 61, has been farming for his entire life. He explained that the most difficult part of growing has been weather extremes we’ve seen in the past five years.
“It’s been more ups and downs, 30- to 40-degree fluctuations of temps, which is hard on people and hard on crops,” Smith said. “This has been a wicked year.”
His family farm is set on 90 acres where they grow a wide range of vegetables and fruits, including strawberries. The strawberries are important to this apple story because strawberries are very prone to frost. As a result, Smith has experience with averting disastrous freezes using an irrigation method.
“An apple grower likes to grow on the hill, but I’m on a lower level so I get these troughs and freezes more frequently than a lot of the guys,” Smith explained. “We get a lot of frosty nights so I have a lot of overhead irrigation [for our apples] like with the strawberries. In this particular instance, it helped me.”
CN Smith Farm sells apples at their farm stand plus they offer Pick Your Own apples. They keep their customers updated as to available varieties with their website and social media. Their current available list includes Macouns (a Russo favorite), Honeycrisps, Galas, and Cortlands. In the coming weeks, they will see Mutsu, a terrific flavorful, crispy, yellow-green apple that we love. Many of these apples, like the Cortlands, keep well for baking.
Smith eats a few apples every day to determine what is ripening and when. The cool nights begin to change the flavor profile of the fruit.
“I can start to taste the difference of when they are converting the starch to sugars,” he said.
When Massachusetts farmers have questions about their apples, they often reach out to Jon Clements, Extension Tree Fruit Specialist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Clements has been doing this work for almost 35 years. Like many of the farmers we spoke with, he said that orchards suffered in the freeze, as well as the tremendous flooding this summer.
Across the state, he said there was about a 25 percent apple crop loss. And with all of the rain, there are more problems with diseases.
Interestingly, he found that the tops of apples trees this year have more apples than the lower branches. That makes sense because there can be a two-degree temperature difference between the top and bottom of an apple tree. Cold air is heavy and stays closer to the ground. So, in some cases, the taller trees did better than others. Higher is always better for apple trees, which is why many of the legacy orchards around the state were built on hills.
Clements also noticed that old standard varieties such as Macintosh, Macouns, and Cortlands seem to have fared better than some of the newer varieties. Honeycrisps, he noted, have done well, although they don’t necessarily look as good as they usually do.
“We are encouraging people to be patient with the harvest,” he said, adding that the apples still taste great.
In the case of this year’s May frost, farms in the western and northern parts of the state were the hit the worst.
“Some orchards in the Berkshires got really blasted and lost almost everything,” he said. “And parts of southern Vermont were hit even harder than Massachusetts.”
That tracks for George Dutton. His family farm lost 90 percent of their apple crop in the freeze this year.
“We had a suspicion that it would be some damage, but I don’t know if we thought it would be such a widespread kill,” he said.
We sold Dutton produce at our store in Watertown for many years, and we continue to keep their jams in our pantry.
Dutton, 32, farms alongside his parents and siblings who have farms and farm stands around Brookline and Newfane, Vt. Dutton’s grandmother is an excellent baker (we’ve been fortunate to sample many of her goodies), and you can find her products at their farm stands in Vermont, too.
As most of us have noticed, the past few weekends have offered us a lot of rain, which may affect the typical excitement for Pick Your Own apples. We take our family apple-picking as an after-school activity — it helps us to avoid large crowds, and the weather has been more accommodating on weekdays this year. It might be something that works for you, too. No matter what, don’t miss this opportunity to buy and enjoy local apples. Now is the time.