Fall officially begins Sept. 23, but after a couple cool snaps and a whiff of autumn air, plenty of Minnesotans are itching to bundle up in a sweater, grab a pumpkin spice latte and spend an afternoon at the apple orchard.
Multiple varieties are already ripe and ready to pick in Scott County, even though this year’s apple crop is trailing a couple weeks behind average growth. The quality of the yields, however, speak for themselves.
“We’re a little behind because it’s very wet, but the apples are looking just great,” said Joe Wagner, co-owner of Wagner Bros Orchard in Jordan.
Many of Minnesota’s favorite apples, such as Honeycrisp, Haralson, Regent and Honeygold, are fully ripened and now available at local orchards. At the Wagner Bros apple stand, Wagner can hardly keep Regents in stock, as he runs out and picks a fresh bushel for waiting customers.
“Regent is what we sell the most of,” Wagner said, dropping the bright red apples from tree branches into his harvesting apron. “You look at them and they have real nice color and people use them for everything.”
While apple customers might be impatient waiting for certain varieties to come into season, David Bedford, senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum sees this as a boom year for great quality apples. If anyone knows apples to the core, it’s Bedford. He is one of the foremost apple breeding experts in the country. Thanks to Bedford, the world was introduced to the Honeycrisp apple, known for its explosive crisp texture and sweet flavor.
While the growing season is running a little later than normal, Bedford acknowledged, “it’s not a disaster. We’re a week behind normal and in the scheme of things, the weather really hasn’t been a factor unless we have an early freeze.”
Simply put: a later harvest doesn’t mean bad a year. Owners of Wagner Bros and Minnesota Harvest Orchard, also in Jordan, both agreed that any year without hail is a great year.
“People always ask ‘is it a good year?’ In all honesty, there is only one thing that decides that: whether or not you get hail,” Wagner said. “If you don’t get any hail, it’s a great year. Fifteen seconds worth of hail will absolutely destroy everything.”
“It’s been a good year and we’ve been blessed we haven’t had hail because all around us they’ve had hail,” said Skip Cook, co-owner of Minnesota Harvest.
They may have been misery for people, but the cool nights of early September were great for coloring up the fruit and the rainy days earlier this year kept the trees well hydrated. That said, the recent rains have brought a little too much moisture and may lower yields for some orchards, despite providing great fruit.
“The amount of water is just unreal right now,” Wagner said.
“Apple production is lower this year, it’s just been wet and cold for so long,” Cook said. “Apples don’t like to sit in water — and there is a lot of water right now.”
But overall, it’s been a low-stress year for the apple trees, which means fruit quality should thrive. In recent years, however, the apple orchard experience has expanded far beyond the crop itself. Many local orchards are transitioning to the “agritainment” business model, where farming and recreation exist side-by-side. In addition to purchasing or picking apples, people are now making a day out of visiting the apple orchard.
Minnesota Harvest has made the most out of this new model by embracing attractions like apple cannons, corn maze, wagon rides, an endlessly “Instagramable” sunflower patch, hard cider bar, fresh bakery and a full kitchen with live music and an artisan pizza truck on weekends.
“It’s good for the area,” Cook said. “They come here, they go to the candy barn, they stop at Wagners — it helps the community as a whole. They go downtown and stop at the businesses there, it draws people out of Twin Cities and brings them here to have fun and support the community.
Reporter Unsie Zuege contributed to this report.