By Starrla Cray
COKATO, DASSEL, MN Some got hail and some got frost, but overall, the apple crops of local orchards are looking mighty tasty and ahead of schedule this season.
“We opened Aug. 11, the earliest we ever have,” said Julie Townsend of Dassel Hillside Farm. “Everything’s ahead about 10 days.”
Dassel Hillside had a little frost over Mother’s Day weekend, but the orchard missed the mid-summer hailstorms.
“Any year you don’t get hail is a good year,” Townsend said.
Countryside Apple Farms in Cokato also avoided the brunt of ice pellets.
“We were on the edge of some hailstorms, but it was nothing like we’ve had in the past,” owner Ron Nyquist said. A few years ago, Countryside was hit by three September hailstorms.
“That’s the worst time to have that happen,” Nyquist said.
Weather may have caused some orchards to have fewer apples, but they’re definitely not lacking in size and juiciness.
“The quality is just excellent,” Townsend said.
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.
Countryside started picking Honeycrisp Tuesday.
“Everybody wants Honeycrisp,” Nyquist said.
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,” Townsend said. Dassel Hillside has about 20 types of apples to choose from.
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,” said Curt Peterson of Harvest Orchard in Montrose. Last year, Peterson’s 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.”
Many of the apples at Harvest Orchard were damaged by hail in July.
“It was one storm. Fifteen minutes. That’s all it took,” Peterson said.
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 six 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.
Harvest Orchard, Carlson’s Orchard, and Dassel Hillside each have about 3,500 to 4,000 apple trees.
Dassel Hillside, which began in 1982, will also harvest squash and pumpkins later this fall.
“The apples are all sorted and washed and ready to go,” Townsend said “We have lots of jams and jellies, frozen pies, caramel, and caramel apples.”
Many orchards have hayrides, corn mazes, or other activities.
“People don’t drive 40 miles just to get a bag of apples,” Peterson said. “They’re really looking for some kind of experience.”
Carlson’s Orchard is a restaurant and bakery that serves soups, salads, and sandwiches. Apple pie and ice cream is the standard desert. The last two Sundays in September and the first two in October, pork chops are also on the menu.
“We do hayrides on the weekends, and we have music on certain days,” Carlson said. “It stays consistently pretty busy out here. People want to go out and have a good time.”
Countryside in Cokato is one of the smaller orchards, with five acres and about 500 trees.
“We’re a small orchard in comparison to some of the others in the area,” Nyquist said. Although his orchard is more of a “swing in and go” style, Nyquist said he still enjoys getting to know his customers.
Local orchard owners said they are hoping for good weather during the remainder of the harvest, and hope to have an extended selling season.
“I think the demand is up,” Townsend said “People are getting more into buying local.”