Autumn is the season for apples
By Randa Wagner
Autumn brings the new school year, football games, cooling temperatures — and apples.
Orchards everywhere are humming with activity right now as apples get picked, sorted, bagged, and pressed into cider. For the Osbornes at 6027 US Route 42 southwest of Johnsville, it’s business as usual since 1958.
Though the past summer was dry and hot, son Steve Osborne said, “This year there’s quite a few apples — a couple thousand bushels maybe. The harvest varies every year, from 500–2,000 [bushels].”
He also estimates they’ll have about 1,500 gallons of cider.
“We sell a lot of it,” he said. “We have a cider press now: I found a small one that does about 10 gallons per pressing so it does pretty good for us.”
Growing 12 types of apples and maintaining peach trees has its ups and downs. Weather is a major issue, says Steve, adding, “There’s a lot of things that can happen, such as a storm can pass through with hail and reduce your apples to ‘making apple butter only’ status.”
But the Osborne’s orchard fared well during the horizontal windstorm that passed through in July this summer.
“I lost some limbs on some of the trees, partly because there were so many on them,” Steve said. “We had one old tree blow over by the road. It wasn’t too bad.”
This summer’s drought took its toll on many crops in Ohio and across the nation.
“We were fortunate here,” Steve notes. “We did have a dry spell for about a month but we got some rain at critical times, so I think that helped us a bit. About a quarter of the apples are still kind of small compared to usual.”
Steve says what surprised him this year was everything blossomed about two weeks early at the end of March.
“I had yellow delicious apples in early September, about two weeks ahead of schedule,” he notes. “We started picking Macintosh and Cortland then and other apples you don’t (usually) have until the end of September.”
Steve planted a hundred peach trees this spring in the back of the property and said it will be about three years until they produce if he keeps them pruned and ‘growing good.’
How were the peaches this year?
“Pretty decent,” he reports. “A pretty good size really — I was surprised. Peaches usually come on the last week of July through early August. You usually only have them about three weeks; you have to move them fast — they don’t keep as long.”
Fruit presents some of the same challenges as grain farming. A wet spring and summer usually means a problem with scab and fungus, particularly in apples.
Steve says the fungus wasn’t bad this year, probably about 5 percent.
“I did pretty good with that, I think the dry weather helped.”
However, if it rains at least an inch, you have to spray to keep the scab and fungus down, Steve said.
“You have a 24-hour window to spray the leaves and apples with a protectant fungicide, and it has to be in contact with the apple to keep the mold spores off,” he explains. Fungus comes from the ground from the year before. When it rains, it sends mold spores up onto the leaves first and you can kind of control that, if you watch, to keep it from getting on the apples — if you can get in (to the orchard), but that’s not as much of a problem as it used to be.”
Steve notes a grower can spray with pesticides up to a month before harvesting.
“Because it washes off so easily, you have to do it again and again,” he explains. “In a wet season, scab is probably you’re biggest concern, though there’s always insects you have to watch out for, too. Spots on the apples are most often caused by scab fungus.”
Spotty apples can still be used for cider, Steve says, because, “you’re not using the exterior, you’re using the juice in them; they get ground up and press into burlap bags and filtered 3-or-4 times before it goes into jugs.”
What if it’s a hot and dry season?
“If it’s too dry, like this summer, you get smaller apples (unless you have some sort of irrigation system),” Steve notes. “The amount of apples is more determined by the number of blossoms in the spring. What surprised me this year was the apple trees got frosted three times while they were in blossom — and they’re still loaded (with apples)! I’d come over in the morning to check on everything and there would be frost all over the trees, but they really had a heavy blossom set on them; I don’t know if it helped. But I’d say there’s 90 percent of the crop out there.”
A grower can do a lot of things to stimulate tree growth, he says, such as fertilizing trees just about every year and keeping the trees pruned.
“Pruning is a big thing, because the water will go to fewer apples — so they’ll get bigger, and you’ve got to thin out the limbs that aren’t going to produce any apples and keep your sprouts down to minimum. I did some pruning in the winter to get as much sunlight into the tree as possible and also be able to get the spray into the center of the tree.”
Another way of determining the harvest is by spraying the trees to thin ‘blossoms’ in the spring. Too many could mean an overabundance — and smaller — apples.
“It’s tricky because it has to be a certain temperature when you do it, and the size of the apples has to be right,” Steve said. “The size of a dime or so. If you think you have way too many on there you can spray; the chemical takes off some of the apples. But if you put too much on, it will take off ALL the apples! I don’t do that too often unless I’m worried about it.”
If a grower thins an apple tree by hand, the apples can be removed when they’re a bit bigger. Steve had so many apples on the trees this year he hand-thinned some out so the limbs wouldn’t break.
“It’s time consuming,” he notes. “If I had left ALL the red delicious apples on the trees, they would be the size of grapes now!”
The orchard has changed over the years. Beverly says it was a lot different when she and her late husband, Gene, first bought it from Henry Baker 54 years ago.
“There were a lot more trees and they were just getting into (fruit) bearing age,” she recalls. “It was the opportune time [to buy it].”
As older trees died off, they replaced them with apple varieties popular at the time. Cortland and McIntosh are the ‘mainstays’, the Osbornes say.
They still use the old building in back for cider apples clear through December and January, Steve says, but mainly used the refrigerated room in the building in front for apple storage. That way they keep making cider for months.
Today, Steve estimates the orchard has about 150 bearing peach trees, mostly Red Haven, and about 650 apple trees.
Though there aren’t as many trees as years ago, it’s still a lot of work. Steve, who works in construction, and his wife Melissa are Beverly’s ‘right hands’ since Gene passed away.
“Steve is sure a blessing!” his mother said. “He started young to help his dad and he liked it.”
“I enjoy doing it,” Steve said. “When dad was here we made a little money at it. It’s like farming; some years are good, some years are not so good. We’ve had a good crop in spite of the early frosts and the drought: I’m amazed.”
Randa Wagner is editor of the Morrow County Sentinel.