Why It's So Difficult To Bite Into A Tasty New York Apple Right Now

While your Facebook and Instagram feeds may be clogged with photographs of friends basking in the fall sun under the graceful limbs of picked-over apple trees, these images disguise the devastating harvest most New York state apple farmers faced this year. Farmers across New York, the nation's second largest apple producer after Washington state, suffered one of the most troubled apple-growing seasons in recent history.

"This is the worst fruit crop I've ever seen," says Josh Morgenthau, co-owner of Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction. His family's 97-year-old farm lost half of its apples when apple buds opened early during the winter and were then hurt by an April frost. "I haven't spoken to anyone whose crop is 100 percent of what it should be."

"We had no apples for picking."

Some of the hardest-hit farms were the "pick-your-own" orchards within driving distance of New York City. Wilken's Fruit and Fir Farm in Yorkville Heights announced to visitors it lost 60 percent of its crop and instead offered visitors bins of apples to pick from. Greig Farm in Red Hook warned visitors on its website that it was "virtually picked out." Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard in North Salem also tried to put a positive spin on its troubled year by promoting "bin picking" on its website.

These recent weather patterns also have hurt apple farmers' ancillary businesses, like wholesale sales, cider production and donut sales. Morgenthau says that his farm would not sell any apples to wholesalers this year. After the farm ran out of apples to pick on Saturday, October 15, he still had to find ways to entertain the visitors who flocked to the farm on Sunday.

"We had no apples for picking," says Morgenthau. "But we still had a day that was two-thirds as successful because people came to take hayrides and get donuts."

The bad harvest has taken place at a time when the state's apple industry has been trying to increase production by planting newer and denser apple trees, says Julia Stewart, a spokeswoman for the New York Apple Association. In late August, the U.S. Apple Association predicted that New York state would produce 30 million cartons of apples, which is slightly higher than the 29.5 million carton average over the past five years. Stewart remained upbeat about overall production for the season because she says the impact varied from farm to farm and in some cases from where trees were located on individual farms.

But New York apple farmers interviewed for this article say that despite the overall industry growth and the fact that certain varieties survived better than others, the entire industry seems to have been hurt by weather this year. Russell Bartolotta, third-generation co-owner of Klein's Kill Fruit Farm in Germantown, which grows, packs and ships apples, is in touch with many growers statewide. He notes that in addition to the problems that Hudson Valley growers suffered, apple farmers in western New York were hurt by drought, and Champlain Valley farmers were hurt by hail. He estimates that apple production overall will be off by 25 to 30 percent.

"The vast majority of people had issues with their crop this year," says Bartolotta. "Anybody I know — and I know a lot of people in the apple business — has issues."

This harvest has been a problem for orchards nationwide. Stewart says that some farmers in Michigan, the nation's fourth-largest apple producer, had their crops wiped out by a tornado. Other farmers in Pennsylvania were hit even harder by frost, adds Stewart.

Weekend apple pickers don't seem to have much patience for these empty trees. In some cases, like with Wilken's Fruit and Fir Farm, visitors took their complaints to Yelp.

"They should have a sign stating 'there are no apples to be picked,'" wrote one reviewer. "Therefore customers would not waste [their] time going to the orchard. A very disappointing experience."

The state is trying to offer help. In August, Governor Andrew Cuomo designated 24 counties as natural-disaster areas, giving them the opportunity to apply for relief. The state has organized an event taking place today called the Big Apple Crunch to raise awareness about New York state apples by having people across the state all bite into an apple. Tessa Edick, founder and executive director of Farm On!, which helped organize the fourth annual Big Apple Crunch, notes that consumers have long been disconnected from the problems farmers face. She adds that New York farmers were also hurt this season because they nearly lost all of their stone fruit, like peaches and plums.

But many state programs aren't likely to help farmers. Morgenthau says that his farm is unlikely to take advantage of the state's loans and notes that crop insurance generally cannot compensate the cost of good farming.

"It ends up being a pittance because the crop insurance payments reflect the lowest wholesale prices you would get," says Morgenthau. He adds that the payouts don't "come anywhere close to supporting our crops because we are growing our crop organically."

Some farmers are bracing for their business to get worse before it gets better. Skye Caradonna, co-owner of Caradonna Farms, a staple at New York–area farmers' markets including Union Square, says this year's apple harvest was down 40 percent from its five-year average. His farm, which is located in Ulster County, does not qualify for state relief programs, and he does not have crop insurance. He says he will start to feel the full effect of this bad apple harvest next spring, when he runs out of apples to sell.

"I'm not going to be storing any," says Caradonna, who typically holds onto apples for the rest of the year. "You won't have the variety, or depth, or breadth, late winter, early spring, next spring, next year."