Growing up, my daughters had one consolation after the school year got underway and summer bid its final farewell: apple picking. These family outings to local farms were not only pure fun, but they also gave my wife the produce needed to create her mother’s mouth-watering applesauce and my mom’s sweet apple crisp.
This autumn, dozens of local farmers are predicting a bumper crop for the “pick your own” crowd, with an expansive selection — including McIntosh, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Macoun, Autumn Crisp, Empire, and Braeburn — fresh off the tree through the end of October.
“There is something inexplicably magic about wandering into the heart of the orchard, finding and picking the perfect apple from the tree, and then eating it out of your hand,” said Ted Painter , owner of Shelburne Farm, 20 miles west of Boston in Stow.
“We feel that spending a day with your family and friends, seeing how and where the food you eat everyday is produced, is a very rewarding experience,” said Christian Smith, owner of C.N. Smith Farm, which is about 35 miles south of Boston in East Bridgewater.
Shelburne and C.N. Smith, like many other local farms with “pick your own” programs, are open to groups small and large. In many ways, they are ideal teaching environments, providing a tableau where visitors are having so much fun they may not realize how much they’re learning.
“We enjoy hosting groups from every background and for every purpose imaginable: schools, family reunions, college groups, church groups, youth groups, elder groups,” said Painter. “The orchard is a living, breathing classroom. Most of the teaching happens when somebody asks an orchard greeter a question about how apples grow, or about some piece of equipment in the field or parked by the barn, or about some feature of the land or trees.”
Since the “classroom” is outdoors, participants can enjoy the season’s milder temperatures, and develop a true appreciation for the “farm to table” concept that many restaurants trumpet these days.
“Today’s fast-paced lifestyle sometimes takes this for granted,” said Smith. “Here at the farm, we find it very sad when you ask a child where apples come from and they answer ‘the grocery store.’ ”
Most orchards are found in spectacular settings, providing panoramic vistas enhanced by a kaleidoscope of colors during foliage season.
“Our orchard is completely open, and people are encouraged to wander and take in the season and enjoy the whole orchard,” said Keith Bohne, owner of Drew Farm in Westford, about 30 miles northwest of Boston. “Our customers tell us that that is why they come back to us year after year.
“I think that people enjoy getting outside in the cool, crisp fall air to choose their own fruit and have a place for their kids to run around. Picking your own apples is also a very strong family tradition for a lot of families.”
Gerard Beirne, the owner of Berlin Orchards, about 40 miles west of Boston, said the reasons people go apple picking are almost as diverse as the number of apple varieties.
“Some people go because it’s tradition,” said Beirne. “Others go because they’re working all week and would like to spend some time with their children on the weekend doing something healthy. We have a lot of repeat customers that come back every year, because they love our apples and they want to support the local farms.”
While most farmers acknowledge that their annual crop is at the mercy of the fickle New England weather, those we spoke to said the current crop looks outstanding. In 2016, many farms struggled with erratic spring weather followed by summer drought.
“Yes, last year’s drought was tough on the apple crop,” said Cheryl Farnum of Boston Hill Farm in North Andover, about 25 miles north of Boston. “They were smaller in size and tended to not hold onto the trees as long.”
In Westford, Bohne said Mother Nature was especially fickle in the spring of 2016, leading to difficult growing conditions.
“There was a shortage of apples last year, but it wasn’t the drought,” he said. “The shortage was due to a multi-night freeze – with temps as low as 13 degrees – in April, after the apple buds had come out of dormancy. We were very short on all of our varieties, probably a quarter of our usual crop. This year is normal, and a very good year for apples.”
In Stow, Painter agreed.
“2017 should be a blockbuster year,” he said. “The apples, peaches, and Asian pears all are huge from copious rain, and the numbers are truly incredible.”
Keep in mind, not all types of apples are available at the same time. Painter said the season’s first are Gala, McIntosh, Cortland, Blondee, Zestar, and Ginger Gold, followed by Honeycrisp, and then Macoun, Autumn Crisp, Crimson Crisp, Candy Crisp, Empire, Mutsu, Spencer, Jonagold, Pink Lady, Fuji, and Braeburn.
Then there are a few eccentric varieties, said Painter, whose farm claims “trees descended from the famous tree that dropped an apple on Isaac Newton’s head, the Flower of Kent, as well as several trees descended from Johnny Appleseed’s many orchards.
“Our English guests are mad about Cox’s Orange Pippin,” he said. “We grow it along with several of its cousin varieties, such as Ellison’s Orange, Queen Cox, Kidd’s Orange Red. Then we have several ‘antique’ or heirloom varieties in small quantities such as Blue Pearmain, Esopus Spitzenburg – rumored to have been a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, grown at Monticello – and Sheepnose.”
Many farms also have extra features to keep visitors engaged. For example, Shelburne Farm in Stow has a tractor playground with a retired John Deere combine, while Drew Farm in Westford offers a fire pit (complete with s’mores) and live music on the weekends.
For an interactive map of “Pick Your Own” farms, visit mass.gov/agr/massgrown/apple_pyo.htm. Call ahead to the farm you plan to visit to confirm hours, prices, and available crop.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com .