Challenges and successes in the last year

No one likes to profit on a neighbor’s problems, but with preharvest predictions for apple production looking strong in New York state and weak in Washington State, growers in the Empire State were quietly smiling that things are going their way.

By mid-August, the New York Apple Association was predicting a near-record crop of 29.5 million bushels, just shy of the 2004 record year of 30.4 million bushels, and crossing their fingers that good weather might even push them into a new record year.

In the Hudson Valley, the strongest of the three New York apple regions, early predictions were hovering at 110 percent of the normal production level. In the Lake Champlain area, the association predicted the 2007 yield would be, “excellent.” The western region looked strong, as well.

A month later, predictions were holding steady or falling slightly as a dry summer remained dry. With a terrific spring blossom season and a sunny, cool summer behind them, September started by turning a beaming optimism into a slightly cautious one. Then again, talk to farmers and cautious optimism is always the name of the game.

“We’re not sure it’s going to turn out the way that we first hoped,” said Joy Crist of Crist Brothers Orchards in Hudson Valley, N.Y. “I would say it’s turning out not as big as some of the early predictions.”

“We don’t expect a bumper national crop, so that is good,” she said.

Then again, she said this before two weekend downpours put an inch and half, then another inch of rain on much of New York. The apples in many orchards swelled, accordingly. Early predictions, it turns out, might even by shy of the rare and hard-won optimism.

A Northern apple powerhouse

New York is a strong second in the apple production in the U.S., with 10 percent of the nation’s total, but it is still dwarfed by Washington State’s 133 million bushels per year. Washington dictates price though the basic formula of supply and demand. With 60 percent of the nation’s production, it was good news in New York when the state apple producers gathered for a late-summer conference and western growers revealed that the crop in Washington was predicted to be off their norm by around 3 percent.

Supervisors with bins of Empires at Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, N.Y.

The boost to New Yorkers farmers follows two years of sustained good fruit prices in New York, said Alison DeMarree, of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Lake Ontario Fruit Program.

The trend toward healthy eating, purchasing local foods, and the revelation two years ago by Cornell University researchers that apple skins have strong antioxidant capacity and anti-cancer agents, have all helped the industry. Last year’s shortage of oranges helped boost apple sales and, in addition, the Honeycrisp variety has suddenly pronounced itself as the new trend-setting fruit du jour, creating phenomenal press for the industry. When it comes to Honeycrisps, “people literally come into the store shaking,” said Brian Nicholson who directs marketing for Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, N.Y. “They don’t care what price you charge.”

“That has a huge positive impact on the overall apple category. If you can develop a piece of fruit that captures the marketplace, you increase what they call your fruit basket share.”

“It’s an extremely popular fruit,” said Tre Green of Chazy Orchards in the northern Lake Champlain region of New York.

While Honeycrisps are finicky, delicate and not high-yielding, the payoff is clear. Pruning is required to allow sunlight to hit apples on inside branches and picking is done with the two-tone coloring in mind. Honeycrisps will then produce 500 to 600 bushels to the acre, but demand has the price hovering near $30 a bushel, said DeMarree. At the same time, Gala produces 700 bushels to the acre and demands $8 to $12 per bushel. Macintosh might receive $7 to $10 per bushel, she said.

Find your market

With 1,300 acres, Chazy Orchards bills itself as “the largest Macintosh orchard in the world,” but even they have started turning acres over to Honeycrisps, Green said. “We’re in a niche, and that’s what we’re going with,” he said.

Brenda and Bill Michaels, owners of Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard in Fly Creek, N.Y.
Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard in Fly Creek, N.Y.

Red Jacket Orchards has turned to juice production and 14 years ago began sales through the New York City farmers’ markets. Forty percent of their produce, which includes summer fruits, berries and tomatoes, is now marketed through the Green Market system. While selling direct to consumers, they’ve been able to establish contacts in the city and expand their sales to retailers, as well. Trucks leave the orchard for the Big Apple every night, Nicholson said. They go directly to sidewalk markets and to their Brooklyn warehouse.

Chazy Orchards, 350 miles north of the city, goes east, instead of south, marketing much of their Macintosh apples to the United Kingdom, Green said.

Of course, income is only part of the formula. The cost of land in New York continues to rise; the cost of petroleum-based chemicals and fertilizer continues to skyrocket; and labor has become the central issue among produce growers today.

The labor issue

While Crist Brothers, Red Jacket and Chazy Orchards all claim to have enough pickers for this season, Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) continues with a major initiative toward rounding up illegal workers. ICE’s Web site claims that arrests of illegal workers have gone up sevenfold since 2001. Even the Farm Credit Association has responded with alarm, claiming in a recent statement that New York could lose “in excess of 900 farms,” in the next 24 months, if the difficulty of staffing farms continues unabated. “The current targeting of farm businesses by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and the resultant difficulty and confusion that this has created in maintaining the necessary workers, will cause long-term financial damage to family farms,” reads the statement released this summer.

With the annual migration of workers following the harvest north, this fall appears to have enough workers—especially since many Mid-Atlantic States had poor crops this year due to an overabundance of rain.

With less work in the Mid-Atlantic states, workers came north early, but last spring there were not enough workers on farms to help with planting and pruning jobs, according to DeMarree.

“We need an agriculturally based jobs bill or legislation that will allow guest workers to come in, work and return home. Without that source of labor we won’t be able to harvest our crops,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association.

“American workers will not do that type of work,” he said. “Offshore migrant workers need to be here for three months or two months, period. It’s a seasonal situation.”

Central to the dispute is the H-2A guest worker program, which requires farmers to pay a wage of $10 to $12 per hour, provide housing, pay for transportation to and from the guest worker’s home, and pay for weekly trips into town to a bank and grocery store.

Jugging cider in 1971 at Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard in Fly Creek, N.Y.

“The H-2A program is not large enough, and they can’t handle the demand or need, and it’s a very cumbersome program,” Allen said.

The cost, of course, is a major reason that farmers balk at hiring through the guest worker program. Green said that Chazy Orchard has been using the program for 50 years and hasn’t had to worry about fruit falling on the ground because no one is there to do the picking. “We have 150 Jamaicans on the farm now, and they’re all legal,” he said.

Costs and the possible collision with ICE agents seem to have scared some orchard owners into jumping into the H-2A program, albeit reluctantly. Orders for guest workers rose from seven to 30 in Wayne County in the last year, DeMarree said.

One way or another, apples will get to the market this year. They will be fresh, crisp, on time, and well represented by the Empire State.

Ciding pressing at Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard in Fly Creek, N.Y.

“We’re close to our markets, so we have a smaller carbon footprint than most of our competing areas,” Allen said, “and I think that’s going to become important. Agricultural dollars multiply five times back into the local economy, and that’s very important for keeping the agriculture in the state strong and to stop urban sprawl.”

Apples and agritourism

With an 1854 water-powered cider press, the Fly Creek Mill was built to accommodate many of the orchards in the Herkimer, N.Y., area. Thirty miles from Cooperstown, however, the mill has become engulfed in the tourist business, bought in 1962 by Charlie and Barbara Michaels specifically for that purpose.

There are 7 acres of apples trees left from the original farm, but the mill still processes 20,000 gallons of cider a year, much of it frozen for customers who arrive in spring and summer.

As an ag-tourist business, the mill is among the most successful around. It draws 120,000 visitors a year and hires 35 to 40 people, who run the gift shop and press, the restaurant and bakery.

Today, the business is run by Bill Michaels, who continues to expanded marketing for the business.

Along with two breweries and the Bear Pond Winery, the cider shop has expanded marketing through the New York Depart-ment of Ag and Markets by joining together to form the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, an association that will share promotion costs. They have begun a new magazine called “Quench” to promote their products, and they have applied for marketing grants.

The business, he said, is “product oriented.” They sell apple salsa, homemade fudge, cider and baked goods.

Lessons learned: “Make sure you’ve covered the basics,” he said. “Clean, modern restrooms, entertainment and food service. People want to eat, be entertained and use the restroom. Make sure that it’s all top-notch.”

The author is a freelance contributor based in Dryden, N.Y.