A Bittersweet Bite

For the last nine years, the Cronin family – Steve, Helena and daughter Hayley – have made an annual 20-mile fall pilgrimage from their home in Horseheads to Littletree Orchards in Newfield, where visitors may pick their own apples. Their goal: pick a total of two bushels of Red Delicious and Jonagold apples. “Steve really likes the Red Delicious, and Hayley and I like the Jonagold,” Helena noted. “I like the more tart apples, and the Jonagold has just the right amount of sweet and tart.

“Steve is all sweet, all sugar everything,” Helena said with a laugh. “Steve likes the sweetest wines, and I swear he’ll eat sugar straight from a jar, like a honey bear.”

The Jonagold is a Cornell apple, Helena observed. “That’s why we originally tried it. We said, ‘Oh, this is a Cornell, Ithaca-developed apple – let’s try it,’ and the flavor was so good.” She said that over the years they’ve tried just about every apple variety in Littletree Orchards, but “the Jonagold really works, and if you’re going to go picking apples, you might as well get them because they’re not easy to find in the supermarkets.”

Not surprisingly, the whole family enjoys apple pie, and when it comes to putting the pies together, they seem to agree that the Jonagold has the edge. Jonagold apples are crisp, “so they bake well, they hold up,” noted Helena. The Cronins’ annual apple-picking is “a real family event,” Steve said. After picking, it’s tradition for them to enjoy cider and apple donuts at the Littletree farm stand. Their outing concludes with a drive into Ithaca for lunch. “Fall is our favorite time of year,” said Helena.

Littletree, Big Variety

Established in 1973, the 40-acre Littletree Orchards gives customers the opportunity to pick among more than 60 varieties of apple trees. “A lot of people like the Empire and McIntosh,” said Dennis Hartley, who owns Littletree with his wife, Anna Steinkraus. “But they also like to experiment and try some other varieties they can’t find in the grocery stores, such as Jonagold, Melrose, Baldwin and Fortune.”

Hartley noted that “people are hung up on the whole factor of crispness – how crisp an apple is. That’s the first question I always get asked: ‘Is it crisp?’” The grower said he usually responds: “‘Yeah, it is, but what else do you like about it? Do you like the sweetness or the tartness?’

“Apples age, and the sugar content usually goes up in relation to the acid in the apple,” Hartley said. “Texture will change, and a lot of the time it will be a softer apple or not as crisp as when you first picked it, but the flavor will still be excellent. I try to ensure people understand that concept.”

In addition to the pick-your-own apple business, Littletree Orchards presses apples for cider, producing as much as several hundred gallons a day in the busy fall season, and operates a retail stand at the Ithaca Farmers Market.

A Dooming Bloom

Unfortunately, all of this orchard production – for Littletree and for apple growers across New York – was thrown into question this past April when, after an unusually warm March caused trees to bloom early, a series of severe freezes destroyed as much as 60 to 70 percent of the state’s apple crop. “It’s hard to come up with a number, but, generally speaking, we’ve had some serious damage throughout the state,” reported Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association.

“It really depends on site location, but we certainly are looking at the largest loss since 1945,” Allen related. “Normally, we would pick approximately 30 million bushels of apples, but will we pick half that this year? We just don’t know.” Allen said he talked to a grower in Saratoga County who reported that he had a full crop, but another orchard operator just six miles away said he didn’t have a single apple. About 53 percent of New York’s approximate 700 commercial growers have crop insurance, according to the executive. The state ranks second – behind only Washington State – in U.S. apple production.

Hartley estimated he lost about 70 percent of his apple crop. Regardless, Hartley said his orchard will be open for picking this season, but only on the weekends. The grower said he’s especially concerned about a likely shortage of storage apples – fruit that gets stored in coolers for cider-making during the winter months. “It’s going to be a lean year for us,” he said.

Other New York apple growers reported losses anywhere from 50 to 70 percent. In Geneva, Red Jacket Orchards, with 400 acres of apples, had a 50 percent loss, according to company president and chief executive officer Brian Nicholson. “Empires got hit very hard,” he noted. “We’re telling people they probably won’t notice much difference in the fall, but you won’t see a lot of our apples come late winter and into the spring. Prices will be up a little, but that’s probably what you’ll see in the Northeast in general.”

In Trumansburg, Jackie Merwin, co-owner of Black Diamond Farm, reported the loss of “just about all of our cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and pears” – and about 70 percent of their apple crop. Among the apples, she said, “we have a lot of different varieties that have fruit on them, but the workhorses – the Goldrush, the Gingergold and the Jonagold – are all frozen out.”

Merwin said a section of heirloom apples in her orchard managed to survive the freeze. She opined that a genetic cold tolerance along with a later blooming schedule saved those varieties.

In Wayne County, the largest apple-producing county in New York with almost 20,000 acres under cultivation, a grower located along Lake Ontario said his orchard suffered a 50 percent crop loss. “We fared better than other people, but it’s somewhat variety-specific, so it’s going to be interesting this year to see how it plays out,” reported John Teeple, co-owner of the 350-acre Teeple Farms in Wolcott.

“Red Delicious, Empire and McIntosh seemed to get hurt quite hard by the freeze,” Teeple said. On the other hand, he added, “Galas and Romes did well, and Honey Crisp did fair – they must have been at a different stages (of bloom). We’re still shaking the dice to see what we’ll have in Empires. We’ve got some orchards farther from the lake that we probably won’t even pick.”

Teeple said he had some crop insurance. “It’s designed to give you just enough to get you through the year.” The grower said he expected the price of standard apples to rise to the price consumers have been paying for the premium Honeycrisp variety.

An Apple Fit for a King

When Teeple speaks of his Empire orchards, he’s referring to an apple variety in which he has some personal history. The Empire is a Cornell-bred apple, a cross between the McIntosh and Red Delicious. The breeding began in 1945 with the collection of seed of both parent apple varieties from a single orchard in the Hudson Valley. In 1966, the new Empire apple was released to consumers.

Twenty years later, in 1986, Teeple Orchards brought to the attention of Cornell apple breeders a branch of one of the farm’s Empire trees that bore apples of a distinctly redder color. Researchers began a study of this limb and affirmed that it was indeed a “limb sport” that consistently produced redder, “extra fancy grade” fruit. In 1992, a patent was awarded for the “Teeple Red Empire” cultivar, which was named the “Royal Empire.”

In support of the Cornell apple breeding program, the Teeple family shared the “Royal Empire” patent with the university. “The researchers at Geneva would like to acknowledge the generosity of the Teeples in arranging this dual release, and thank them for their support of our work,” the university noted.

Nowadays, the Royal is one of the Empire strains grown around the state. Asked if the original sport limb is still on the tree, John Teeple noted: “That branch is gone. We should have kept it, but we didn’t. It was an older strain of Empires and the spacing was bad, so we pushed out the block and planted Galas.

“We’re not too sentimental,” Teeple said with a laugh. “Out with the old, in with the new.”

New York State of Mind

That grower emphasis on new varieties comes into play with a new Cornell apple-breeding project supported by Teeple and another 143 growers across New York State. The members, who call themselves New York Apple Growers LLC (NYAG), have signed on to plant a total of 900 acres of two new apple varieties called, for the time being, New York 1 and New York 2.

The new varieties were bred by Dr. Susan K. Brown, who directs Cornell’s apple-breeding program at the university’s agricultural experiment station in Geneva, and who serves as a professor of horticulture and associate chairperson of the combined horticulture departments at the Ithaca and Geneva campuses.

New York 1 has Honeycrisp as one of its parents, while New York 2 has a Braeburn parent, Brown noted. “New York 1 is for those that like a Honeycrisp apple, and New York 2 is for those that also like that crispness and juiciness but like more of a sugar-acid balance,” she said. “When I was making crosses, I was trying to get a little more oomph in the Honeycrisp, a little bit more volatiles and flavor. New York 2 is actually part of a population in which we were trying to develop apples with higher Vitamin C, being less problematic with flesh browning after they’re cut.” The work on the two varieties took 10 and 18 years, respectively.

Elaborating on the slicing issue, Brown explained: “Coming from humble means I couldn’t understand what the big buzz was over baby carrots because how hard is it to peel a carrot? But now, convenience is the key. As a mom myself, I know that my kids would eat sliced apples when they wouldn’t necessarily eat a whole apple – and they have the best apples in the world at our house.

“It’s just that if you slice apples up people will eat them, and if you had an apple that was school lunch-friendly – that didn’t naturally brown when sliced – that would definitely be a big attraction,” Brown stressed. “We studied a lot about what consumers would like and held tastings, and the feedback we’re getting is very exciting.”

The apple breeder noted that she has already moved on to a next generation by crossing New York 1 and New York 2 together. “Somebody said once, ‘Gee, I like New York 1 and I like New York 2, but I want something kind of right in the middle of the two of them,’ and I said, ’Well, we’re working on it.’ We try all different kinds of combinations.”

Brown said she maintains a 33-acre collection of apple hybrids at Geneva “that are each unique and different than what has currently been seen anywhere else. We usually have anywhere from a small number to several thousand of a hybrid.”

“It’s like playing the lottery,” Brown said. “The more you have, the better the chances of getting the combination that you want. It’s like having a big family where we’re trying to develop something that’s an improvement on the parents and has some unique characteristics.”

On the production side, the breeder explained, New York 1 and New York 2 are particularly grower-friendly. They have very low chances of catching the prevalent diseases that apples get, including scab, powdery mildew and fireblight. They ripen uniformly, and they store well, she said. The original Minnesota-bred Honeycrisp has a reputation among growers as a difficult variety to harvest and store.

Brown had much praise for a new cooperative arrangement between Cornell and the New York Apple Growers. “As a breeder, to have released these varieties just a year ago and to already have a commitment to 900 acres is just phenomenal,” she said. She also spoke highly of the growers group’s plan to share with her breeding program the licensing fees the organization will assess from members for marketing and quality control.

Roger Lamont, an apple grower in Albion, Orleans County, and board chairman of the NYAG, said the new apple varieties are a year away from showing up in roadside farm stands and two years away from commercial markets.

“To keep the New York apple industry competitive we have to have new varieties that are of premium quality and are exciting for the consumer,” Lamont stressed. “All segments of the industry have to be profitable, and the breeding program has to be adequately funded to develop these new varieties.”

The Lamont family has been farming in Albion since 1815. Marketing was a concern even back then. It got easier, Roger Lamont pointed out, when the Erie Canal was dug a little more than a mile away in 1823.

by Bill Wingell

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