Local orchards dealt another tough season
By Heather Norton
CAMBRIDGE CITY, Ind. — The apples are still piled high in their rustic wooden crates, enticing customers to bag some up to take home. But the buyers and the sellers are both aware this fall that instead of coming off trees a few yards away, those apples traveled hundreds of miles.
“On the whole everybody’s been very nice, understanding,” said Shannan Hicks, who co-owns Dougherty Orchards with her family outside of Cambridge City, Ind. “It’s been a hard year.”
The Dougherty owners lost all of their apple crop this spring when much warmer-than-normal temperatures accelerated the budding and blooming on the fruit trees, and then those blooms were killed by spring freezes. That’s a risk every spring, but the warmest March on record, according to the National Climatic Data Center, led to earlier blooming and therefore, greater damage.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture apple crop forecast in August showed that the entire Midwest apple crop was hard hit, while Washington state’s large crop was expected to increase this season. The eastern U.S. crop was down, but not as severely as the Midwest’s, where the USDA forecast was down 79 percent.
“We’re buying from West Virginia for our apples this year,” Hicks said. “Down south they did not lose their apples.”
Wesler Orchards & Farm Market in New Paris, Ohio, also lost their entire fruit tree crop this season. Ron Wesler said they bought apples to sell to keep their business in operation. Weslers has 40 acres of apple trees, as well as blueberries, peaches, strawberries, plums, cherries, black raspberries, and blackberries.
“Most apple varieties are available just the volume is down and the price is quite high due to the demand,” Wesler said. “Our other cane crops survived the Spring freeze ok. Our grape crop was approximately 40 percent.”
The loss this year is especially hard on eastern Indiana and western Ohio orchards because it comes after several rough seasons. Hicks said they lost 80 percent of the crop on their 100 acres of apples last year to hail damage, and in 2010 lost 50 percent to a freeze.
“Two orchards south of us and one east of us have just closed down for the season,” she noted. “We just hope we can hold on for another year.”
Another significant fruit crop loss from freeze occurred in 2007 across the Midwest, and according to the NCDC, resulted in billions in damage or costs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports Indiana has approximately 4,000 acres of apples and ranks 15th in production in the United States. Ohio ranks 9th in the nation in apple production.
Hicks said they do not sell their apples wholesale, but generate revenue from retail sales of apples, some pears and plums, and value-added products and attractions at their farm. Purchasing apples to have in their store essentially eliminates most profit from that source, so the other income streams become top priority.
“There are lots of reasons why people come out here,” Hicks said. “We’re always trying to increase our petting zoo, which really brings people out. We also sell apple dumplings, doughnuts, apple butter, pumpkins and other fall products. We have a family member that makes honey that we sell, and we also make our own cider. We’re still trying to provide the service we always have.”
Customers still come out, as well as schoolchildren on field trips, for the apples and “fall experience.” While many are sympathetic to and aware of the local apple loss, others just see higher prices and balk. Tyler Dougherty of Dougherty Orchards said the mix of a slow economy with a lot of people still struggling and the higher apple prices can lead to disappointment and fewer sales.
Also, customers make the trek each year anticipating the unique apple varieties that the founded-in-1883 orchard grows.
“Most of our suppliers this year don’t grow those, so you have people coming in asking, ‘Where’s this one or that one?’ and we have to tell them we don’t even have those in the store this year,” Dougherty said.