NORTH ANDOVER — How do you like them apples?
This season, not so much.
The crop at Smolak Farms in North Andover was so light and blemished that the owner felt obligated to post a letter of explanation on his website late last week.
“Due to last year’s cold winter and cold, wet and late spring, the quality and quantity of our apples are not as good as last year,” wrote Michael Smolak, a third-generation farmer. “I apologize that we have not been able to keep everyone happy.”
The winter was too cold, the summer not hot enough, and now comes an autumn of discontent for apple growers. After a bumper crop in 2013, many orchards across the region are having an off year and will end the picking season earlier than usual, if not already, to the shock of New Englanders in search of their fall fix of apples, cider doughnuts, and corn mazes.
“It’s a very touchy subject,” said Frank Carlson, partner at Carlson Orchards in Harvard. “We have apples for this weekend and, hopefully, next weekend.”
The apple picking season at Carlson and other farms typically lasts through the end of October, with crowds peaking Columbus Day weekend. The crop at Carlson’s is down by 50 percent from last year.
Along with the uncooperative weather, you can blame it on winter bud damage and an outbreak of fire blight, a bacteria that infected a swath of orchards across the state. The disease, which leaves trees and fruit looking burned, hurts production.
To stretch out the pick-your-own season, Carlson Orchards is not squirreling away as many apples for cold storage, which get sold to supermarkets so that we can enjoy local apples through the winter. Carlson said last year’s harvest enabled him to supply Macintoshes to stores through June, but his stash this season will probably last only until March.
At Connors Farms in Danvers, the combination of a light crop and heavy crowds in September meant the pick-your-own apple season ended last week. You can still buy apples at the farm stand — 16 varieties!
Owner Bob Connors expects record crowds this season, thanks to some insurance in the form of more family activities. They include a new Nerf ball zone, an expanded petting zoo, and a mechanical bull.
Welcome to the 21st century farm experience. The admission price — $12.95 for adults, $9.95 for children — will help Connors offset a rotten year for apples. Fruit is extra.
“Families are looking to come out for the day,” he said.
There can be an upside to the downside of a small yield: great-tasting apples. Because the trees grew less fruit, the apples have been bigger and more flavorful.
“It’s an odd year,” said Russell Powell, a senior writer at the New England Apple Association and author of “Apples of New England.” “We are getting some beautiful apples. People would like more of them.”
Massachusetts is expected to produce roughly 40 million pounds of apples, down 9 percent from last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Small harvests typically follow bumper crops because the trees need the rest.
Prices are unlikely to go up at the supermarket because other states are expecting a bountiful yield. But lost in this year’s stats is how uneven the yield has been from grower to grower.
Powell, who has been visiting orchards this fall, said some farms will have close-to-normal harvests, while others will experience double-digit drops. The region is full of micro climates, and some areas suffered winter damage, others didn’t. Some farms had trouble with spring pollination, while at others the bees had no problems. Some orchards got attacked by fire blight, others escaped it.
The funny thing about Smolak Farms is that after the apology note went up online, the parking lot still brimmed with cars on Sunday. By afternoon, the country road leading into the farm was jammed like the Southeast Expressway.
There were lines for everything — to pick the few apples left, to weigh pumpkins, and to grab freshly fried cider doughnuts at the bakery.
Sure, some of the regulars noticed the slim pickings. And instead of filling your bag in 20 minutes, it might have taken an hour to scout out the perfect orbs. But with the sun shining and the temperature around 60, everyone seemed to savor being outdoors before parka-and-glove season arrives.
“It’s just worth being outside,” said Kerrie Joseph, 38, of Lexington, who brought along her wife and their three kids. “You can’t beat it.”
Or maybe all the smiles came from all the goodwill Smolak built up from last year when the crop was so good he gave away apples — yes, for free — at season’s end.
“People came with trucks,” he said. “They all left happy.”
While Smolak can still draw a crowd with special attractions — a petting zoo, corn maze, and hayrides — he doesn’t expect to make a profit with his apple harvest sliced in half.
“If we come up even for the year, we would be surprised,” he said. “I don’t like to cry about it.”
But Smolak and other farmers bruised by apples want to remind New Englanders they can load up on another fall favorite that is plentiful this season: pumpkins.