Ripe for the picking: 2017 apple season varies for Wisconsin orchards

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Associate Editor
Branches loaded with apples greet pickers at the Elegant Farmer on Sept. 23 during the Autumn Harvest Fest, which runs weekends through Oct. 22. The more than 4,000 trees are zone picked with guides of what is being picked each weekend available for visitors.

Apples are ripe for the picking and some orchards across the state have trees loaded with fruit, yet others have found this season challenging.

With more than 300 commercial orchards, comprising about 6,500 acres in 57 of Wisconsin's 72 counties, nearly 900,000 trees produce about 60 million pounds of fruit worth more than $15 million per year, according to the Dane County Conservation League.

Most of the commercial acreage is in four locations in the state. The most concentrated areas are: Crawford and Richland Counties (1,300 acres), Door County area (824 acres), Bayfield and Chippewa Counties (840 acres), and the greater Milwaukee area (900 acres).

Plentiful crop

While the crop is plentiful at Sunset Valley Orchard in Bayfield, owner Craig Johnson said apples are slow to ripen because of the the cool summer in the northern part of Wisconsin.

At Choice Orchards in Door County, orchard manager Glenn Musil is seeing an average crop with some varieties producing more, some less.

In Washburn County, Smith's Poquette Lake Orchard in Shell Lake, has a great crop this year, probably because "we froze out last year," said Lynn Smith, who owns the orchard with her husband Bob. 

Ethan Osborn, 8, of Jackson, searches for the perfect Golden Delicious apples at the Elegant Farmer, Mukwonago, on Sept. 23, 2017. The Elegant Farmer orchard has 17 varieties of apples and more than 4,000 trees with a bumper crop this year. The Autumn Harvest Fest runs weekends through Oct. 22.

"We had to thin apples all summer to take the load off the trees," said Smith. 

South of Eau Claire, Ferguson's Orchard is experiencing a "really good," apple harvest also, said owner Andy Ferguson. They avoided "Mother Nature's two main perils of apple orchards," spring frost and "the 'H' word - hail." 

When trees were blossoming this spring, it wasn't "even close to any dangerous temperatures," in the Eau Claire area, "so we made it past that," Ferguson pointed out. Hail missed their area as well. 

Ferguson added that the crop is "a little bigger than usual," at their orchard this year. He attributes that to last year's weather when a spring freeze got to "a fair amount" of their trees, resulting in fewer apples last year.

"They came back stronger than ever with way more apples to make up for that," said Ferguson. "Apples naturally want to be a biennial producer, so they have a bunch of apples one year and then take a break."

A tree of Ida Red apples waits for picking at the Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago during Autumn Harvest Fest on Sept. 23. The orchard of more than 4,000 trees and 17 varieties of apples holds a big crop this year for visitors to pick from on during Autumn Harvest weekends through Oct. 22.

Commercial growers manually thin down the apples to get production more consistent every year, Ferguson added. 

The recent heat spell "kind of pressed pause for a couple of days," on apples reddening and getting ready to be picked. 

"When they get towards the end in the fall, they like the cool nights, it speeds up the coloring process, bringing out that nice red color," Ferguson explained. 

Challenging season

In the southwest part of the state, Shihata Orchard didn't fare as well with the 'H' word. 

"We had a couple of hail storms go through our orchard," said Linda Shihata. "That's always a fun thing for an orchard owner." 

The hail accounted for about 15 percent damage in the orchard. Adding to the "challenging" season Shihata Orchard has faced this year was a tornado that went through and snapped off spots on trees.

Everett Clark, 21-months, of Appleton, helps his family pick apples at the Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago during the Autumn Harvest Fest on Sept. 23. The Autumn Harvest Fest runs weekends through Oct. 22. The orchard of more than 4,000 trees and 17 varieties of apples has a bumper crop this year.

With the cool summer, apples didn't ripen on time and they are seven to 10 days behind in their picking schedule. Then the recent heat didn't provide the cool nights to make the apples sweeter.

"It's been interesting," said Shihata. 

The orchard is an agriculture tourism destination and the only orchard in the area that offers you-pick apples, "so people will come not just for apples, but pumpkins, gourds," said Shihata. "We get a pretty nice crowd."

It's been a tough year at Armstrong Orchards in Fond du Lac County in the Campbellsport area, according to owner Lisa Klein. 

The rainy summer made controlling scab difficult at Armstrong Orchards. When harvesting, apples with scabs go into cider or the bakery or something else and doesn't make a saleable apple, Klein explained, resulting in lower apple sales. 

For Klein, the growing season this year is "much shorter." 

"Because of the weather, everything came at once," Klein said. "The stuff that we normally wait for a frost for, is ripe and ready. Everything is ripe and ready right now. It's not taking the normal amount of time."

Usually a tree is picked four times as apples ripen. 

"This year everything ripened very quickly," said Klein. "We think we will be out of apples in three to four weeks, which is about a month earlier than usual." 

Insect control

All orchards experience some insect pressure and have to monitor moisture for fungus. This year has been nothing out of the ordinary. 

Most Wisconsin Apple Growers Association orchards "are really making great strides in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems," said Andy Ferguson.

Ferguson said orchard owners are getting "more precise in insect trapping and monitoring," Innovative things like using pheromones to either attract insects to a trap, or to repel them from the area are being used to reduce the amount of insecticide needed. 

"Most orchards with any volumes in the Midwest have to use insecticide from time to time because it's too wet here," said Ferguson. "We're always looking for ways to be innovative and provide safe, healthy fruit."

Shihata Orchard has been implementing IPM for about 12 years, using bug traps and monitoring moisture to spray at the optimal time, temperature and moisture to avoid a fungus outbreak. 

"It saves you money and saves on chemicals in the environment," said Shihata. 

Armstrong Apples uses an advanced IPM method called eco apples, which takes IPM "one step further," according to Lisa Klein.

Klein said they started out organic "but that didn't work," and went from that to IPM. About 10 years ago they switched to the eco apples method.

With the eco apples method, protective measures like spraying with neem oil or garlic are used, as well as insect mating disruption. 

"We've been very successful with mating disruption," explained Klein. "We always keep our beneficial insects in check so we don't wipe out everything because we want those beneficial insects that feed on the other insects to control our population."

Check orchard websites to see which apple varieties are being picked each week.