Many orchards also offer family activities
After drought and an ill-timed spring frost produced a disappointing apple harvest statewide in Connecticut last year, growers say the 2017 crop has rebounded strongly and could reach record numbers.
“Last year’s crop was very short, but this year all varieties are available,” said Brian Kelliher, who runs Easy Pickin’s Orchards in Enfield and is President of the Connecticut Apple Marketing Board. “We had good pollinating weather and ample rains early on, and the cool nights and sunny days recently are making for great color, quality and flavor.”
Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said apples are one of the state’s largest and most important agricultural crops, with an average yearly harvest of about a half-million bushels worth $12 million.
Apple season in Connecticut has also evolved to become much more than just picking fruit.
“Many of our orchards have worked hard to diversify their operations into tourist destinations that offer customers a rewarding agricultural experience that includes a variety of activities,” Reviczky said.
Cheshire grower Eli Drazen said his crop was down about 40-percent last year, as much of his orchard went into dormancy. The lack of apples, as well as peaches that were wiped out in a February freeze, led to noticeably fewer customer visits to his Drazen Orchards on Wallingford Road.
So Drazen was particularly anxious this spring while looking for signals about the fate of the current crop.
He got his answer in late May, when most of the thousands of apple trees in his orchard exploded with white blossoms and tiny fruit that certified the orchard had fully recovered.
“The trees were just covered in blossoms — we call it a snowball bloom,” Drazen said as he continued picking apples during the midst of what he predicts will be a record-setting harvest. “We knew that this year was going to be a real limb-buster.”
He believes the period of inactivity that most of his older apple trees experienced in 2016, combined with plenty of rain this spring and ideal ripening conditions in recent weeks, is the recipe for a bumper crop.
“We had all of those factors come together this year,” Drazen said. “The trees that went dormant last year and didn’t have a crop are just bursting with apples.”
Drazen, whose family has been growing fruit here since 1951, said the warm days and cool nights in the crucial few weeks before harvesting are essential to trigger hormones in the apple that produce a deep red skin and convert the apple’s starches into sugars.
While he still grows traditional New England varieties such as Macintosh, Cortland and Red Delicious, Drazen said he has been busy planting newer varieties that are making many of the older ones obsolete. In the past few years, he has planted more than 1,500 dwarf Honeycrisp trees.
“Honeycrisp is a big thing — we don’t seem to be able to plant enough of them,” he said. “The phone rings off the hook with people looking for them.”
New trees are planted three feet apart and trained on multiple horizontal trellis wires that spread the branches, allowing more sunlight to penetrate and making the rows easier to spray and pick.
The dwarf and trellis system makes picking dramatically easier for customers, and allows Drazen to plant about 1,200 trees per acre, as opposed to the 200 or so in traditional orchards with larger trees.
The Connecticut Apple Marketing Board’s (CAMB) website, , offers information on the state’s growers and apple varieties, as well as a free digital app that can be downloaded from Google Play or the iTunes store.