As the weather starts to turn in the fall, so do the colors of apples in Minnesota’s many orchards.

From green to red, unready to ripe, it’s apple picking season. What will this fall be like for local farms and orchards due to the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s tough to tell, but Paul Hugunin, director of agriculture marketing and development at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown program, said orchards are wide-open spaces with COVID-19 guidelines in place. So it’s safe for families to get out and support their local growers.

“I’m optimistic about all of the orchards,” Hugunin said. “People are eager to do things outdoors that are fun and feel good about doing it. Hopefully, people want to go out and support local orchards.”

Minnesota Grown has helped connect customers with local farmers for more than 30 years. There are more than 100 orchards around the state in the Minnesota Grown directory.

In 2018, U.S. News selected Deardorff Orchards in Waconia as one of the top 25 places in the nation to go apple picking. The 125-acre farm also has the Parley Lake Winery on site, where customers can sample different kinds of wine made from the farm’s own grapes and apples.

Minnesota Harvest in Jordan has been around since 1971. Apple picking season usually starts in mid-August with some early varieties, but Labor Day weekend really kicks off the season that runs until the end of October.

Peter Welter, part of the wholesale apples and products division at Minnesota Harvest, said in a normal year Labor Day weekend would see as many 3,000 customers come through the orchard. This year, Welter said there was less than half that, roughly 1,200 people over the three days.

“In a normal season, many people would come here and stay half the day,” Welter said. “Now, we are seeing people just picking apples and leaving. Half of what we normally do for these months, we’ve been unable to do.”

There are plenty of apples to pick at Minnesota Harvest, but the pandemic has restricted or canceled other activities there and at other orchards, including entertainment, corn mazes, tractor rides, petting zoos and limited eating areas.

“Our hands have been tied with COVID,” Welter said. “It’s cut into our profits. It’s also been harder to find labor.”

Welter said the commercial side of the business is still doing well. Apples are getting out to grocery stores and local farmers markets.

Hugunin encourages shoppers to ask their local markets which apples are locally grown and which ones are from out of state.

Welter said one way to tell is if the apple is shiny or not, which means they are likely waxed to make them look more edible and stay ripe longer for stores.

“I don’t think they taste as good,” Welter said. “Our apples are not waxed. They go from tree to store.”

APPLE VARIETIES

The University of Minnesota has been breeding apples since 1888. Nearly 30 different varieties have been released over the years, including ones that are ready to pick in mid-August.

The most recent early season apple to be bred was in 2017, when Rave and First Kiss were created. They are known to be juicy and tart, and are deeply colored red. They will keep post-harvest for up to five months.

One of the top varieties is Minnesota, and in many places around the U.S., is the Honeycrisp apple, which ripens starting in mid-September. Haralson is one of of the more popular late-season apples.

Honeycrisp was named the Minnesota State Fruit in 2006, and selected as one of the top 25 innovations in over a decade in the 2006 Better World Report.

“Honeycrisp is still the dominant variety,” Hugunin said. “It’s well-known nationwide, but it’s biggest in Minnesota.”

Tom Schardin covers sports for Savage and Prior Lake. He is dependable, sarcastic and always joking around. Tom enjoys running and swimming and is often busy coaching his two kids' sports teams.

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