By Jill Keppeler
Niagara Gazette — As local apple growers settle into the autumn season — and what some call “the best apple crop ever” — the image of heading to the orchard, bag or bushel basket in hand, to harvest piles of crisp, juicy fruit seems like the ultimate in fall family fun.
But first, there’s a few things the people who own those orchards would like you to know.
“This year is probably the best apple crop ever, for us, anyway,” said Melinda Vizcarra of Becker Farms in Gasport. “We had basically no crop last year. But the trees had a chance to rest, they grew a lot of leaves and got healthy. They were all rested up and had lots of flowers and had good pollination. And then through the summer we’ve had good rains, timely rains.
“Lots of times when you have a big crop, you have a lot of tiny apples. But this year, the apples are not only plentiful, but they’re a good size. They’re beautiful. ... The branches were bending to the ground, they’re so full. Last year was awful and this year, there’s so many, you just can’t stop picking them.”
Barbara Baker of Peter Baker Farm of Ransomville also called the season “excellent.”
“We had a lot of rain, which means we have good-sized fruit this year,” she said. “Everything is big and juicy and we had a lot of heat this year, so everything is nice and sweet. It’s a very good year this year for apples.”
The ins and outs of apple season
While local, ripe apples begin becoming available in mid to late August (and Murphy Orchard’s season actually started in July with Red Astrachan apples), by mid-September, the season is hitting its stride. Most local farms that offer you-pick apples have a season that lasts until late October or very early November.
One of the most important things to know, said several local growers, is that all apples are not ready at all times.
“Contrary to what most people believe, you can’t just come and pick a little bit of everything,” said Carol Murphy of Murphy Orchards in Burt. “People say, ‘Well, I like sour apples.’ But an unripe apple is not sour, it’s bitter, and you don’t want any part of that.”
Most orchards plant accordingly to stagger their crop, “so that you can keep your employees busy all season, but not overwhelmed all season,” Murphy said. As she spoke Sept. 11, Murphy Orchards was coming up on the time for McIntosh, Macoun, Greening and Cortland apples. By today, Ida Reds and Empires would be on the horizon.
Vizcarra said that Becker Farms would likely be looking now at McIntosh, Cortland and Macoun apples, with Empire, Red and Gold Delicious and Jonagold in October.
“If you’re going picking and you want a certain variety, you should call and find out when it’s being picked,” she said. “If apples are ready, if we don’t pick them, they’ll pick themselves. They fall to the ground. It’s not like we can leave them there for a couple months.
“People think if they’re in the store all at the same time, they’ll be on the trees at the same time.”
The time of year a given variety of apple is harvested also coincides with its texture, and hence, how long it can be stored.
“Early apples will not last very long. They get soft quickly. They’re not as dense,” Murphy said. “They’re wonderful and crisp off the tree, but they won’t retain that crispness for a long time. Later apples retain that quality, that crispness for a long time”
Because of that texture, later apples are better for long storage through the winter — at least, as long as they’re stored correctly.
“People feel like if they pick it off the tree in an orchard, it can just sit out all the time,” Murphy said. “They should go immediately into the refrigerator. An apple at room temperature goes softer four times as quickly as one in the refrigerator.”
“People don’t realize how long apples will keep if you keep them in the refrigerator,” she said. “They will keep a couple months in the refrigerator. And the later apples, they will keep six months in the refrigerator. Even if you don’t have a lot of room in your refrigerator, once it gets to be October or so, if you keep them in the garage, someplace outside, they will last all winter.”
A matter of preference
With so many different varieties of apples grown in the area, other common questions growers must field have to do with the best usage for the various types. But it’s really not that simple.
“People say, ‘Is this a good eating apple, or is it for cooking?’ “ Murphy said. “All apples are good eating apples. Only Snow White’s stepmother grew the other kind.
“Some apples are better for cooking, but even that is a preference. Some people like a smooth applesauce, some people like a chunky applesauce.”
Yellow Delicious makes a smoother applesauce, while Rhode Island Greenings make for a chunkier one, she said. Greenings are “the only apple your grandmother would have wanted for a pie,” while Empires are “wonderful for everything.”
The early/late apple consistency factors into this as well, Baker said.
“A lot of the earlier varieties, because they’re soft, don’t hold their shape really well,” she said. “Cortlands hold together, Macs not so much, but they’re good for applesauce. They’re a great apple for applesauce because they’re a little tart, you can sugar them up to your taste, and they’ll mush right down.”
While consistency is a factor, the one thing that’s consistent about apple variety preferences is that they’re different for everyone and everything, Murphy said. While she can say that Red Delicious are terrible for pies, someone else might insist that’s their favorite type.
“Everyone has a favorite,” she said. “It’s not a question of knowing the best. It’s a question of knowing the difference.”
What to do ... and what not to do
Above all, when people head out to do some apple picking, the most important thing they should do is remember that, while it might be a lark for them, it’s serious business for those who own that orchard.
Murphy said that when Murphy Orchards started more than 30 years ago, people picked apples because they planned to store fruit for the winter. Today, things are different.
“Today with refrigeration and grocery stores being what they are, most people just come out here for fun, for an adventure,” she said. “And when they’re doing it for an adventure, they think it doesn’t matter if they throw apples at each other
“This is our livelihood. When someone goes to an apple farm, they’re dealing with someone’s livelihood. Each apple is our income, hanging on that tree.”
Robert Blackman of Blackman Homestead Farms of Lockport, which has about 15 varieties of apples this year, also asked for respect from the public.
“We welcome their business, but on the same hand, we ask them they respect our orchards, our trees, that they not climb the trees, because that knocks the fruit off the trees,” he said. “Pick gently, handle the fruit gently, because it’s easy to bruise.”
Orchards that offer you-pick apples have to deal with a “huge” amount of waste, Vizcarra said. Several growers said that apples on the tree need to be handled as delicately as one would handle an egg.
“The public are not experienced pickers, they usually pick one and let one fall to the ground,” she said. “And then that apple is only good for juice, at most. It goes from being a fresh apple to only worth a couple of cents. Every one you pick, there’s one on the ground.
“When you pick apples, if you’re not sure how to do it, it’s OK to ask. You don’t just pull on the apple, you actually sort of twist it off. When you pull it, that’s what makes the branch shake, that’s what causes the waste.”
In addition to respect and careful picking, an important thing to remember when heading out for day in the orchard is to dress for the conditions.
“Don’t wear flip flops; you’re going to be out in the field,” Murphy said. “Dress properly. In the fall, it gets chilly. A lot of people come inadequately dressed.”
Vizcarra has also seen this as an issue.
“Be prepared for the weather,” she said. “ Sometimes they come in nice little shoes, and it is an orchard.”
A family day trip
While apple-picking can be the star of the show this time of year, local orchards may also offer such further draws as cider, already-picked fruit — and other produce — gift stores, school tours and more.
Among other things, Blackman Homestead Farms offers a petting zoo, straw maze, fresh turkeys — order now for Thanksgiving — and local maple syrup and honey, while Murphy Orchards has a country store, a tea room and tours (including one examining its Underground Railroad heritage). Becker Farms offers everything from fresh-baked goods at an on-site bakery to fall festivals — with haunted Halloween festivities — beverages from Vizcarra Vineyards and Becker Brewing, private events and more.
Baker said that Peter Baker Farms started offering you-pick apples after a neighboring farm closed down, then added a bounce house when the economy took a downturn and families were looking for something local and inexpensive to do.
Then, as visitors started asking more questions about the farm and area, they started hayrides, to “really show people from the city when it looks down here in the county, and they really enjoy it,” she said. They’ve also added a pumpkin patch and a corn maze for children.
“It makes a nice family day trip that doesn’t cost a lot of money and you go home with something that’s really very good for you ... a bag of fresh apples,” Baker said. “Families love it, because it’s something that they can all do together and it’s not costing them a lot of money. It’s a nice, good, clean thing to do.”
IF YOU GO Farms that offer you-pick apples in Niagara County: • Becker Farms, 3724 Quaker Road, Gasport. Call 772-2211 or visit www.beckerfarms.com. • Blackman Homestead Farm, 4472 Thrall Road, Lockport. Call 434-7116 or visit www.BlackmanHomesteadFarm.com. • Murphy Orchards, 2402 McClew Road, Burt. Call 778-7926 or visit www.murphyorchards.com. • Peter Baker Farm, 2100 Youngstown-Lockport Road, Ransomville. Call 791-3440. • Sanger Farms, 852 Route 93, Youngstown. Call 745-7297. • Shippy Orchards, 735 Lockport Road, Youngstown. Call 745-9916. -- Information from New York Apple Associations at www.nyapplecountry.com.