August 23, 2019

Red apples don’t just appear on trees

Maine Produces Tab

FAIRFIELD — For many city-living Maine residents, picking apples represents their closest brush with Maine agriculture.

Consider this: How many people would plan a Saturday trip to a local farm to pick a bushel of potatoes? Squash? Corn? Pumpkins? Onions? Beets?

Change the subject to apples, however, and volunteers will come out of the woodwork.

Steve and Marilyn Meyerhans, who own the Apple Farm on the Back Road in Fairfield, annually raise about 20,000 bushels of apples in their 6,000-tree orchard which encompasses 30 acres in Fairfield and 25 acres in Vassalboro.

Including apples sold at the farm’s store, public picking will take about one-third (6,500 or so bushels) of that crop, one-third will be sold wholesale to Maine-based supermarkets, and one-third will be marketed through a co-op known as Maine Apple Growers, in which the Meyerhans own stock. The co-op packs and sells apples to the J.P. Sullivan Co. in Ayer, Mass.

After working all year to bring their apples to fruition, the Meyerhans enjoy watching families pick apples when the orchard opens to the public in September. Before anyone touches the crop, however, long, arduous work goes into the orchard.

According to Steve Meyerhans, apples have grown on the farm since the early 1900s. The Meyerhans purchased the Apple Farm from Royal Wentworth in 1974. Since Steve had previously worked on the farm, the family knew a great deal about apples — and learned the rest through experience and self-educated.

Preparing the trees to bear next year’s crop actually starts the previous winter, when the Meyerhans prune the trees after the sap stops flowing. During the winter, the family battles natural predators, too.

Mice often nest at the base of tree trunks and “girdle the tree to eat the bark,” Steve said. Keeping the suckers and high grass trimmed around the trees in summer reduces mice cover. but “they still like apple bark in the winter,” he said.

Deer prefer the buds on apple trees. At times, the Meyerhans will find deer paths through their orchard; “we’re seeing many more deer than we did five years ago,” Marilyn said. Preferring not to cull the herd by killing the deer, the Meyerhans have tried non-violent deer-control methods, yet “they keep coming back,” Marilyn said.

In the spring, the Meyerhans fertilize their trees with such nutrients as nitrogen and potassium, applying amounts determined by a leaf analysis done the previous summer. This analysis, conducted on leaves removed from each block of trees, “shows what’s getting into the tree,” Steve explained.

Spring marks the first crucial time for the orchard, as blossoms form on the trees. If the weather cooperates, the blossoms should whiten the orchard about the last week in May, but a late frost or a hard rain could knock down most blossoms and reduce the fall crop.

The Meyerhans rent honeybee hives from a professional beekeeper. The bees will pollinate the apple blossoms; if the weather turns cold and wet, though, the bees will not fly, and cold weather can delay blossom formation.

“Cross-pollination is the key to good apple development,” Steve said. “You don’t get much fertilization if the bees only pollinate trees of the same variety.” To enhance pollination, the Meyerhans provide the bees with golden delicious pollen to carry from blossom to blossom.

Spraying starts before the trees blossom and continues during the summer. In early May, the Meyerhans spray to control scab, a fungus that “once it’s into a tree, can’t be killed,” Marilyn said. Summertime spraying controls insects that might infest the apple trees.

If the trees set too many apples, the Meyerhans thin the fruit to promote better growth on the remaining apples. Natural thinning occurs, too.

Throughout the summer, the Meyerhans keep an eye on the deer and hope for sufficient rainfall and abundant sunshine. Pruning the trees in winter pays its dividend in summer, when sunshine can better penetrate the leaf cover and reach the ripening apples.

The Meyerhans will pick 2 to 3 percent of their crop in August, when early varieties ripen. They grow many varieties, including some dating from the early 19th century. “The older, rare varieties are great apples, but they’re not especially viable for most orchardists to raise,” Steve said.

The Apple Farm opens to public picking in September; the farm store opens in early August. “We let our customers pretty much pick wherever they want in the orchard,” Marilyn said. The Meyerhans start pressing apples for cider in September and set into cold storage any apples not sold in the fall. Stored apples will be packed and sold later.

To pick those apples that will be sold wholesale, the Meyerhans hire six Jamaican migrant workers. “It seems ludicrous, hiring foreign labor, but it’s what works,” Steve explained. “Local people just don’t like the hard work that comes with picking.”

Working in the orchard represents full-time employment for the Meyerhans. “We made a conscious decision when we bought the farm that Steve would be full time,” Marilyn said. She soon devoted her working hours to the farm, too.

“We don’t have a hired hand; we do it ourselves,” Marilyn stated.

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