By Starrla Cray
Some got hail and some got frost, but overall, the local apple and grape crops are looking mighty tasty and ahead of schedule this season.
“We’re way early this year, with all the heat this summer,” said Katie Dickerman of Woodland Hills Winery in Delano. She and her husband, Mike, are already done harvesting.
“We’re ready to make some wine,” Dickerman said.
Apple Jack Orchards in Delano is expecting a high-quality crop this fall, despite frost at the beginning of May, which destroyed some of the apple blossoms.
“During the blossom time, it’s very serious to have a frost,” said owner Kit Dekarski.
Another issue that’s affecting yields is pollination.
“It was a cold and rainy week when the bees were out,” Dekarski said, explaining that they are not as active in chilly weather.
Apple Jack Orchards was fortunate not to get any hail, however.
“There were basically three things going on, and we dodged one of them,” Dekarski said.
Fall Harvest Orchard, located between Montrose and Delano, was not quite as lucky. Many of its apples were damaged by hail in July.
“It was one storm. Fifteen minutes. That’s all it took,” owner Curt Peterson said.
Fall Harvest Orchard’s 10-acre pumpkin crop also suffered.
“They got leveled,” Peterson said. The damage seemed to cause the pumpkin vine growth to go into overdrive, however.
“They grew, like 6 feet in a week,” Peterson said. Because of this, there should be plenty of pumpkins by October.
“The question is, can we hold off on frost until they ripen?” Peterson said.
The pumpkins that were beat up and scarred by hail might be fun to use as Halloween decorations, according to Peterson.
“Some people like that,” he said.
The eight acres of colorful popcorn at Fall Harvest Orchard was also impacted by hail.
“That got shredded,” Peterson said. “It’ll come back; there just won’t be as high of yield.”
Customers don’t have to worry about a shortage of popcorn at Fall Harvest Orchard this year, however, because it first needs to dry over the winter.
“What we’re selling this fall is from last year’s harvest,” Peterson explained.
The hailstones at Fall Harvest Orchard were about three-quarters of an inch in diameter.
“It wasn’t that monster stuff, but there was just so much of it,” Peterson said. “When it’s hard and sharp, it doesn’t take that much.”
The early apple varieties typically have a thinner skin, as well, making them more susceptible to hail damage.
“It’s been 18 years, and this is the first time we’ve had anything like this,” Peterson said. “We can’t complain.”
Woodland Hills Winery is only about a half mile from Fall Harvest Orchard, but it missed the brunt of the bad weather.
“We did get a little frost, and we got some hail damage, too, but not much,” Dickerman said. “We were lucky. Our grapes are excellent.”
Dickerman keeps a light-hearted attitude about the few areas that were damaged.
“The grapes that did get hit, they shrivel up and turn into raisins,” she laughed.
To make up for lower yields this fall, some farms are planning extra activities to draw in customers.
“One thing we have going on new this year is a big corn maze,” Dekarski said. The five-acre maze will feature “corn texting,” in which people can receive clues or prize notifications through their cell phones.
“It’s kind of high tech for a farm,” Dekarski laughed. Apple Jack Orchards also has goats, chickens, wagon rides, pony rides, an apple cannon, cow train rides, and face painting.
On weekends, from 1 to 4 p.m., there is also live music.
“We always have a giant pumpkin weigh-off,” Dekarski added. Other attractions include the Old Barn Gift Shop and the Apple Pantry Café, which are open from June through December.
“People don’t drive 40 miles just to get a bag of apples,” Peterson said. “They’re really looking for some kind of experience.”
At Fall Harvest Orchard, visitors enjoy a laid-back farm atmosphere with baby chicks, wagon rides, and beautiful scenery.
“We have a lot of animals around,” Peterson said. “It’s tailored to families who want to see a working farm.”
Many of the intriguing plants at the orchard such as cotton, buckwheat, and amaranth are grown simply for educational purposes.
“We started this for home-schooled students, but we’ve expanded it now for everybody,” Peterson said.
When Peterson purchased the farm in 1976, there was a total of seven trees on the property. Now, he has about 4,000 trees.
Apple Jack Orchards also started small. In 1983, they planted 250 trees. Now, they’ve expanded to about 10,000 trees with 29 apple varieties. Other crops at Apple Jack’s include strawberries, raspberries, pumpkins, and squash.
Most local orchards have early, middle, and late season apples. One of the most popular mid-season apples is the Honeycrisp.
“That’s the number-one selling apple,” said Colleen Carlson of Carlson’s Orchard near Winsted.
“Everybody wants Honeycrisp,” added Ron Nyquist of Countryside Apple Farms in Cokato.
Other well-loved University of Minnesota fruit program varieties include the Fireside (introduced in 1943) and the Haralson (introduced in 1922).
“Everybody likes to use Haralson to make pies,” said Julie Townsend of Dassel Hillside Farm.
One of the oldest varieties was developed in 1868, in Excelsior, by a man named Peter Gideon. He called it the “Wealthy” apple, in honor of his wife’s maiden name.
A new apple that’s gaining popularity is the SweeTango.
“It’s a little bit sweeter than the Honeycrisp, and slightly tangy,” Peterson said. Last year, his orchard had more than 30 bushels of SweeTangos.
“Many people preferred it over the Honeycrisp,” Peterson said. This year, the SweeTango crop wasn’t as abundant as hoped, however.
“We had wonderful blossoms, but it was too cold, and the bees wouldn’t move,” Peterson said. “We were expecting 100 bushels, but only got three.”
The same thing happened with the Zestar variety.
“We should have had a couple hundred bushels, but only got about 10,” Peterson said.
Having fewer apples is disappointing, but Peterson focuses on the bright side.
“It was maybe a blessing,” he said. “It would have been even more of a heartbreak to have all those Zestars, and then to have them damaged by hail.”