ERWIN — Attendees of the 34th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival, which kicks off Friday morning, should have no problem finding an apple or apple dessert to suit their palates.
However, finding apples produced by local growers may prove a little more difficult this year.
It seems that the quantity of apples grown in Unicoi County orchards is down significantly to slightly this year depending on the orchard. But local growers agree that the quality of this year’s crop is exceptional.
What occurs several months prior to the typical apple season, which is mostly in the months of September and October, impacts the crop that will be grown later in the year. Ty Petty, Unicoi County’s University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension agent, said that cold weather during the fruit’s bloom in April prevented the bloom of some of the fruit-producing flowers on apple trees. These flowers, Petty said, are very “tender” to freezing temperatures.
“That’s the critical point in the process is during the bloom,” Petty said. “That’s going to set the entire potential for the crop for the rest of the year, no matter whether we have perfect weather or a drought.”
The cool temperatures in the spring hindered the bloom just enough to affect the output of apples in the fall, Petty said.
“We’re about two weeks ahead of what would be normal, I would say, as far as the apple supply,” he said.
Michael Willis, who owns Willis Orchard in the Coffee Ridge area, said his orchard usually produces around 3,000 bushels of apples annually. This year, that number was down to around 1,200 bushels. He said pickers typically begin collecting apples from the orchard’s nearly 2,000 trees the second week of September, a process that usually takes around four weeks. This year, apples were picked in seven days.
“I’d say it’s been seven or eight years, at least, since we’ve had a short crop like this, maybe a little longer than that,” Willis said.
But a decrease in the number of apples grown apparently doesn’t relate to the quality of the fruit. While the number of apples is considerably lower, Willis said this year’s growing season has been “excellent,” a word he would also use to describe the quality of the apples, which are larger and juicer.
“We had some of the best apples that we’ve grown in several years,” Willis said.
This appears to be the case across orchards located in Unicoi County.
“It’s actually maybe a better quality crop, but just a smaller number of apples,” Petty said.
Victor Price, who owns the Price Family Orchard, which is also located in the Coffee Ridge area, said this is perhaps because the apples that did grow are more concentrated.
“They’ve got a higher flavor,” he said.
Price’s orchard has around 25 bushels of apples left to pick, he said.
Price also has a different theory as to why this year’s apple crop is down. He said his orchard produced about one-fourth of its typical apple crop but that other fruits susceptible to cold weather grown there, such as peaches, were not significantly impacted. Price said the reduction in this year’s apple crop may be due to a reduction in the number of honeybees that pollenate the fruit-producing flowers.
“I think it was more of an issue of the bees didn’t pollenate them,” he said.
Further on the southern end of Unicoi County in Flag Pond, David Moore, who owns Heavenly Holler Farm, said his luck with the quantity of this year’s apple crop was a little better. He said trees on his orchard produced around 80 percent of its typical 140 bushels.
“We really had a pretty good crop,” Moore said.
He attributes this to the elevation and northern exposure of his orchard, which he said may have saved the crop from frost damage in the spring. Still, most of the apple crop at the “u-pick” orchard, in which the customers themselves pick as much of a fruit as they want and purchase the amount they collect, has been picked.
While the golden and red delicious, McIntoshs, Granny Smiths, Braeburns, and Jonagolds may be a little harder to come by in Unicoi County this year, growers emphasize that this year’s apple crop is as good as it’s ever been.
“The size of the apple made up a little bit of the difference,” Willis said.