8/17/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
SCHUYLERVILLE, N.Y. — Major crop losses limited Saratoga Apple’s “you-pick” season to three weekends last fall. Now, owner Nate Darrow has already begun harvesting early varieties, and customers should start picking their own fruit by Labor Day weekend and continue right into early November.
It’s a huge turnaround for one of Saratoga County’s largest orchards, which had to borrow apples just to keep its retail stand open for the Christmas holiday last year.
“This year we have a bumper crop,” Darrow said. “It’s one of the best crops I’ve seen. The apples are going to be big and fully flavored this season.”
In 2012, a late spring frost devastated his orchard, the same as many upstate New York fruit growers. Saratoga Apple suffered a nearly 70 percent loss.
Fortunately, Darrow had a backup supply to draw from, his brothers’ Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, Vt., where Darrow grew up.
Having weathered that storm, he’s looking forward to a bountiful fall season. Saratoga Apple is on Route 29, a heavily-traveled corridor between Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Vermont, which gets even busier in autumn from weekend leaf peepers.
Darrow gives them plenty of reasons to stop with attractions ranging from live music to hay-wagon rides.
However, the farm’s success is based on sound management and years of experience.
For the past few years, the apple trees have benefited from Darrow paying more attention to what’s going on in the soil beneath them.
“We’ve made a drastic change in how we manage the orchard floor,” Darrow said.
Previously, he would spray herbicide on the rows between trees to keep grass down. Rows are now mowed periodically. It requires more time and labor expense, but it produces a healthier, more long-lasting apple, which is important for winter storage, he said.
“There’s a lot of beneficial activity that happens in the sod layer, a lot of good micro-organisms that help the tree’s root system,” Darrow said. “There’s this whole world underground making it happen. We have to do everything we can to encourage better biology.”
The poor weather of 2012 might actually turn out to be a long-term blessing in disguise for many of the state’s apple growers.
“Because of last year’s frost, a large percentage of trees did not bear fruit, which allowed them to rest up for this year,” said Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau spokesman. “Things have been looking really strong for the apple crop, if weather conditions hold. So far, so good.”
The latest USDA crop report, released Aug. 5, said that 17 percent of apples had been harvested, compared to a 14-percent five-year average, and that 60 percent of the crop is rated good, 26 percent excellent, and only 13 percent rated fair and 1 percent poor.
“We’ve got apples lurking all over these trees,” Darrow said.
Laborers have begun picking early varieties such as Pristine and Williams. Next up, plans call for harvesting Ginger Gold, Paula Red, and Jonamac, an early McIntosh, during the coming week.
Darrow also uses innovative techniques when planting trees. The orchard has three different size and age trees in three separate areas.
There is 40 feet between rows of the oldest, biggest trees; about 20 feet between medium-size trees, but only 11 feet between the smallest and newest trees that are grown from dwarf rootstock.
“It’s a European style of planting,” Darrow said.
Thanks to genetics, the new smaller trees start producing at an earlier age, giving farmers a quicker return on their investment. They don’t yield as much fruit as bigger trees, but because they’re small, more trees per acre can be planted.
“Plus, it keeps labor costs down because they’re closer to the ground and easier to pick,” Darrow said.
One of the biggest changes he’s made the last few years has been going to direct marketing. The farm had 126 acres when he purchased it in 1994. At the time, most business was wholesale, involving a broker who would sell his apples to supermarkets.
Now, in addition to its retail stand, Saratoga Apple belongs to more than a half-dozen area farmers markets, and Darrow sells cider and fresh slices to local schools and restaurants.
By going to direct marketing, he’s eliminated the expense of a middle man. This strategy has allowed him to reduce the size of his orchards to about 40 acres, reducing labor costs considerably.
Newer, more productive trees have replaced old ones and some land once used for apples now produces a variety of vegetables, giving Darrow a more diverse revenue stream.
It’s all part of a long-term plan that should pay handsome dividends this year with a healthy looking crop in the field.
“Some people call it downsizing,” Darrow said. “It’s really right-sizing.”
For more information about the 2013 apple season go to: www.nyapplecountry.com