Nashoba Valley orchards pumped for the coming season

With hot summer passing, orchard owners talk business of apple picking

A view of an apple tree loaded with Ginger Gold apples at Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton. SUN/David H. Brow

GROTON – Summer is almost over and fall is just around the corner. The leaves change, the temperature cools and apples are ripe for picking. Though some apples might take a few days to come in properly.

Russell Steven Powell, executive director of the New England Apple Association, said last week that the coming season is expected to bring an “average to above-average” crop of apples in all six states.

However, Powell noted that this year’s crops may be five to seven days late to the bloom in Massachusetts. Powell said there can be multiple reasons for the late bloom, but he specifically cited weather issues.

“Sometimes it’s dependent on the spring bloom, but it’s been such a hot summer that apples haven’t had a chance to catch up” Powell said.

Powell explained that apple season usually begins around Aug. 15 with September being the busiest overall month. He also noted how smaller orchards typically focus on a 10 week period from mid-August to October.

Another factor in play is President Donald Trump’s impending trade tariffs against China. Powell said that the material used in packaging apples for shipment are made in China and the tariffs could impact how available those materials are. On top of that, Washington state exports apples to China for profit. Powell explained that if the tariffs halt apple exports, Washington’s orchards will sell their apples to the domestic market on the east coast and compete with local orchards.

Regardless of the elements of concern, local orchards are still gearing up for the coming season. Ann Harris, a co-owner of the Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, said that its peak season usually runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. with the best apples usually in bloom starting on Labor Day.

“New England customers know that apple season is usually done by Halloween,” Harris said. “After that, they’re on to other things like Thanksgiving and Christmas and other holidays.”

Harris noted that business has been good at Autumn Hills thanks to loyal customers and an influx of new visitors. She also acknowledged that the hot summers are “concerning” to her and other farmers, showing how “extremely vulnerable” orchards are to bad weather.

“If it’s too hot outside, then people don’t want to go apple picking,” she said. “We watch the weather a lot and it typically doesn’t change that much. Some others subscribe to weather services, but there’s not much you can do. Weather is inevitable and we’re in a race against time.”

Franklin Carlson, co-owner of Carlson Orchards in Harvard, said his family-owned business is “looking forward to another good season” after Labor Day, as August is the orchard’s booming time for selling peaches. He described current weather conditions as “adequate” and “drying out.” Though he said weather is “the most important factor” of the orchard, he added how the family is looking to try new ways of attracting customers.

“We’re still a growing business even after 30 years,” Carlson said. “We started having food trucks a few years ago, plus ice cream trucks. We’re just building a tap room for hard cider. In general, we’re an open-minded industry. A lot more than most industries because we talk to each other.”

Hollis Hills Farm is one of the newer organizations to step up to the enterprise, first started up in Mar. 2014. Since then, the Fitchburg farm offers apple and pumpkin picking, along with live music on the weekend, an ice cream parlor, food trucks, animals for kids to pet and a full bar for adults.

“We’ve been adding these things over time to keep customers coming,” co-owner Jim Lattanzi said. “When we first came to the farm, we had to start figuring out what people want. We brought in our own model and name and everything. It’s an ever-evolving operation.”

Lattanzi said that the farm has been having good seasons over the years but is well aware of how the forecast impacts business.

“We’re all very weather-driven,” he said. “There’s always that component, even if you have the best crop. We’ve had a really good summer, weather-wise, and we’re hoping for continued success.”

Stephanie O’Keefe of Westward Orchards, also in Harvard, noted that peak season is the second week of September through the third week of October. That window makes for good business of apple picking, pumpkin picking, apple cider donuts and other elements the orchard offers.

“Overall our business has been steady,” O’Keefe said in an email. “We have diversified over the last few years adding vegetable production as well as Community Supported Agriculture program to help sustain operations as the wholesale industry that we also relied has changed dramatically.”

O’Keefe also went into detail how important the weather is to its business, going further than the fall season.

“It starts with the weather in the winter,” she said. “If it is too cold for the fruit trees, a frost when the blossoms open or too cold and/or windy for the bees to pollinate. During the growing season it can be too wet or too dry and hail has the ability to destroy an entire crop and growing season. In the fall when it is time to pick your own, if it is too hot and doesn’t feel like fall people are less likely to come out and rain is also a huge deterrent.”