It’s been a challenging year for agriculture, but it appears the orchards perched above Gays Mills have fared better than some of the farms in the valleys below.
The apple season began with an unusually warm spring that had trees blooming weeks early. Then, a severe freeze and cold snap hit the state. It was followed by drought and record high temperatures. Yet, the orchards are still set to begin the harvest with an excellent crop on the trees.
“We had a little damage, but the big freeze that hit the rest of the state missed the majority of our crop up here,” said Terre Van Heren, the manager at Hillcrest Orchard.
The location on the higher elevation above the Kickapoo River offered protection that spared the trees from critical frost damage as they just began to bloom. The steep valleys around the orchards, which naturally drain the cold air away, did their job.
“With the early spring we were prone to frost, but our site proved to be very good during the freeze,” said Allen Teach of Sunrise Orchards. “But, that wasn’t the case for other areas in Wisconsin. There are pockets around the state that made it through.”
The Midwest was hit hard by frost, according to Teach.
“Michigan had a second freeze on the first Thursday of May which wiped out their crop,” Teach said. “They have only 10 percent of their crop. And, New York was hit and has lost 50 percent of their apples.”
Then came summer. This summer has now been declared the hottest summer on record for the United States with much of the country experiencing soil conditions that have not been this dry since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
“Apple trees generally handle dry conditions well,” Van Heren said. “The drought was hard on the young and dwarf trees, so a lot of people watered those. But by and large, the trees fared really well.”
That’s good news for apple buyers. The challenge this year for consumers may be to adjust their scheduled trips to catch favored varieties in stock. Apple harvest has already begun on some of the early varieties.
“We’re running two weeks ahead on everything,” said Van Heren. “Right now, we have already starting color picking Red Frees and Paula Reds.”
Color picking means harvesting only the ripest apples, so that a tree will be visited two, three, maybe even four or five times before it’s fully harvested. Once enough apples are picked and in the salesroom, the orchards will begin to open their doors to the public.
“Most varieties of apples will be earlier than usual this year, so check in early with the orchards to be sure of finding your favorite apples,” recommended Marlene Meyer, an owner at Kickapoo Orchard and member of the Gays Mills Orchard Ridge Association. “All the business places along the ridge will be open with their usual unique products and services.”
Locally grown tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, gourds and squash are also available in the orchard showrooms. Most orchards will be open with early apples starting the weekend of August 11.
Teach noted that they have had calls from other growers and heard that the rumor was out there that there weren’t apples to buy. But the customers haven’t been calling to question the orchard, so he expects to see the usual traffic. After all, Gays Mills does still have its apples.