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A super season for apples

Cool, rainy summer boosts area crop's size

Sun worshipers may have been disappointed by the summer's rainy and cool weather, but the apples have loved it.

"Every year, you kind of hope for just a marvelous crop, and this year, we have a great crop," said Gerard Beirne, farm manager at Berlin Orchards.

Climatic conditions converged to create larger apples that growers say should reap higher payoffs and appeal to Americans' taste for everything super-sized.

"They make a more saleable apple for you," said John Stephenson, owner of Bolton Spring Farm. "People don't want little apples anymore. They want big everything."

Massachusetts growers produce about a million bushels of apples annually, and the McIntosh variety of red apple is the most popular, according to Jon Clements, a tree fruit specialist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"The McIntosh, which is 75 or 85 percent of our production, likes cool and rainy weather," Clements said. "Based on my travels around, in general, people are happy with their crop. Because of all the rain we've had, fruit size is excellent."

Those heftier apples should correspond to a greater return for local orchards, as it takes fewer apples to fill half-bushel and peck bags.

"Normally, when you have a bigger fruit, you have a larger yield," Beirne said. "You're going to pick more pounds per acre and more bushels per acre.

A cooler August this year has caused apples to ripen earlier than normal, prompting Shelburne Farm in Stow to step up its advertising to lure in customers. Pick-your-own enthusiasts typically wait until the end of September or beginning of October, said Ted Painter,the farm's owner.

The 50-acre Shelburne Farm, which sells 100 percent of its apple crop at the retail level, opened for picking on Sept. 4.

"We're a week or so ahead on ripeness," Painter said. "If Mother Nature ripens early, we have to get the public out to pick early. Otherwise, the fruit falls to the ground."

Painter has been exploring new ways to market his apples, including hauling his crop to local farmers' markets and selling dried apple rings or fresh apple slices as concession items with caramel or other toppings.

Shelburne Farm is relying on a lucrative apple season to make up for a bad peach harvest. An extreme cold snap in late January and early February wiped fruit buds from the farm's two acres of trees, and a late-spring frost killed blossoms.

"We lost 80 percent of our peach crop," Painter said. "We opened the peaches on Saturday last weekend, and they were all picked by Sunday morning."

While bumper crops are reported locally, growers elsewhere in the state haven't fared as well, in part because of an early, wet spring.

The New England Agricultural Statistics Service predicts Massachusetts' total apple harvest this year will come in behind 2003 levels.

The service has forecast this year's statewide apple production at 41 million pounds -- 1.5 million pounds fewer than last year, when production was valued at $13.8 million for commercial orchards with 100 or more trees.

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