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Bitter harvest: Yes, we have no apples

Earl Hiller looks an enterprise apple hanging from tree devastated apple crop Garden Patch Farm Homer Glen IL Wednesday September

Earl Hiller looks at an enterprise apple hanging from a tree in the devastated apple crop at Garden Patch Farm in Homer Glen, IL, Wednesday, September 5, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:15PM



First corn. Now apples.

This spring’s topsy-turvy weather, coupled with a late-summer windstorm, has wreaked havoc on autumn’s harvest.

Apple picking, a rite of fall for many families and school groups, has closed early for the season. Some orchards didn’t open at all.

Earl Hiller, who owns Garden Patch Farm in Homer Glen, said this is the worst apple crop he’s seen since he opened for business in 1997.

Though he was able to accommodate some “you-pickers” last weekend, like everyone else he’s had to shut down that part of the operation, he said.

“Our business is dependent on Mother Nature, and Mother Nature doesn’t always give us what we want,” Hiller said. “I just hope the drought hasn’t adversely affected our trees.”

The trouble began in March when temperatures rose to 90 degrees for days on end, forcing apple blossoms to bloom early.

Then April hit Midwest growers with a late frost, freezing and killing many of those blossoms before they could become apples.

Hiller said his farm suffered a double whammy when a late-summer windstorm blew apples from trees and broke off branches and entire trees at the base.

U.S. Apple Association spokesman Mark Gedris said the Midwest was hit harder than he’d ever seen. Michigan, the nation’s third-largest grower of apples behind Washington and New York, turned out a mere 21/2 million to 3 million bushels this season, down from its typical 25 million. Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana also struggled.

“Many growers lost their entire crop,” Gedris said.

He puts the loss nationwide at about 10 percent, lessened somewhat by Washington’s extra hardy crop.

As a result, he said, consumers will not see many of the Macintosh variety, a Michigan specialty, in stores this fall, Gedris said.

Many you-pick fans will have to settle for traipsing through pumpkin patches.

Apples on Oak in Lockport, as well as County Line Orchard in Hobart, Ind., and Nye’s Apple Barn in St. Joseph, Mich., already have announced on their websites that they are closed for apple picking.

“Many of the apples that did survive won’t meet industry standards,” Gedris said. They’ll likely be processed into sauce, pie filling and juice.

At Garden Patch Farm, Hiller said apples represent about 15 percent of his business. He’s hoping a good vegetable, grape and pumpkin crop will help him weather this economic storm. The farm also is selling giant mums for $10.

County Line Orchard does have other things going on at the orchard, to make up for the lack of apples.

“We have a temporary fun activity to fill in for the lack of apples on the trees,” Ryan Richardson said. “We made it ‘rain’ apples into the apple gutters on the trees. Many people are still coming out and having a great day at the farm. In a year where we do lose a whole crop, we rely on folks to still come out and enjoy the many other things we have to offer at the farm. One favorite is our apple cinnamon doughnuts.”

A bright spot

One far west suburban orchard that has been able to defy the odds is open for picking on a limited basis.

At Kuipers Family Farm in Maple Park, apple pickers still can take a hayride to the orchard to pick, although they are being limited to 1/4-peck bags of apples. Picking is available only on weekends and only through October, or while supplies last.

Meanwhile, local pumpkin vendors and growers say they expect to see a healthy crop this year.

Though many backyard gardeners are complaining about undersized pumpkins due mainly to the drought, Dave Bengtson, owner of Bengtson’s Farm in Homer Glen, said he expects to have as good a crop as ever.

The news is the same over at the Children’s Farm in Palos Park, where program director Lois Lauer said while it’s too early to tell for sure, they expect their pumpkins to be good-sized and plentiful.



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