Metro

New England growers excited about apple harvest

Joshua Fitzgerald pointed out some of the vibrant crop his family farm, Mann Orchards in Methuen, expects to harvest.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Joshua Fitzgerald pointed out some of the vibrant crop his family farm, Mann Orchards in Methuen, expects to harvest.

Adam and Eve, eat your hearts out. Apple pickers, rejoice: This year promises to be fruitful for New England’s classic autumn treat.

Across Massachusetts, branches droop, laden with underripe fruit, foreshadowing what farmers predict will be an above-average apple harvest.

“My grandfather would say in a year like this, even the fenceposts have apples on them,” said Bill Fitzgerald, co-owner of Mann Orchards in Methuen. “If we can get this many apples every year, they’d put my picture in a pomology textbook.”

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Fitzgerald predicted he will collect more than 360,000 pounds of apples this year, each tree branch bearing about 10 pounds of fruit by harvest time. Late-summer rains could increase the apple crop’s volume by 5 percent, he said.

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“This year, growers can’t be happier. So far, the crop is favorable,” said Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association.

But she said she remains “cautiously optimistic,” listing hailstorms as a potential obstacle.

Winter moths have also posed an issue in the past: John Howcroft, owner of Perry Hill Orchards in Acushnet, said he lost last year’s apples after an insect invasion.

“Last year, I lost my crops to winter moths that damaged [apple tree] buds,” Howcroft said. “In 2008, I lost a lot to hail.”

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This season’s abundance of apples contrasts with last year’s sparse crop, likely caused by biennial bearing — a phenomenon in which fruit trees bloom heavily one year, then produce very little the next. The small apple harvest followed a 2013 bumper crop, one of the best harvests the area had seen in 30 years, Weeks said.

“The crop two years ago was a big crop. This year may be close to that,” said Thomas G. Clark, owner of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield. “It’s going to be a bumper crop, but not an unmanageable one.”

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Macoun apples at Mann Orchards in Methuen.

There will be “plenty of apples to pick this fall,” the result of ample blooms, plentiful pollinators, and good weather, said Jon Clements, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fruit Growers’ Association. Heavy layers of snow insulating tree roots in the winter, a dry spring, and a prolonged blooming period may have also contributed to the boom in apple growth, Howcroft said.

Josh Fitzgerald, co-owner of Mann Orchards and son of Bill Fitzgerald, said a “big bloom” was the cause of this year’s bonanza, blossoms dotting his orchard’s branches in snowball-like clumps this past spring.

“It was a field of white,” he said. “The trees looked painted with blooms.”

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Months later, at the height of midsummer, Josh Fitzgerald saw trees laden with apples, limbs “weighed down because the fruit gets so big,” he said.

“The trees are very heavy at this stage, almost like grapes hanging down,” said Howcroft, who hadn’t seen trees so thick with fruit since 1992. He fears that the 100-year-old Baldwin apple trees in his orchard will collapse from excess weight.

“Their limbs are . . . far more brittle than younger trees,” he said.

Branches swollen with fruit dipped toward the ground at Mann Orchards, where Cortland apples blushed pale pink in the afternoon sun last week. Ginger Gold apples gathered in clusters, overloading limbs that grazed a ground speckled with unripe fruit.

Bill Fitzgerald plucked a scrawny apple from its cluster and tossed it on the grass. The procedure, called hand-thinning, reduces the number of apples and the tree’s remaining fruit soak up more nutrients and grow bigger.

“That big shiny apple in the supermarket has a lot of work behind it,” Bill Fitzgerald said. A six-member crew spends nearly 500 hours hand-thinning his orchard’s apple trees, picking the fruit and littering it across the ground.

“A lot of people buy with their eyes. If they’re bigger, they’re better,” he said. “They’d be good little apples, but they’re still little apples.”

But this year, the Fitzgeralds’ apples can hardly be called “little.” More than a month before harvest time, their unripe Ginger Golds are already the size of marketable “kid-sized” apples.

When ripe, their Cortlands will be red as beets. Their Mutsu apple trees will look like they have more apples than leaves. And by autumn, Bill Fitzgerald said, each row of their orchard will be a “solid wall of fruit.”

“This is what you can hope for,” he said. “It would be great if our trees look like this every year.”

A “big bloom” was the cause of this year’s bonanza, said Josh Fitzgerald (pictured), co-owner of Mann Orchards.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
A “big bloom” was the cause of this year’s bonanza, said Josh Fitzgerald (pictured), co-owner of Mann Orchards.

Rosa Nguyen can be reached at rosa.nguyen@globe.com.