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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012

Fall Fruit Forecast: Early Harvest

Apples are in season, but not for long

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Apple farmers knew they were in for a difficult year this spring, when an unusually warm, almost summerlike March tricked trees into flowering early, only to have their buds killed by frosty nights in April and May. None of those farmers, however, could have predicted this summer’s record-breaking drought that would make an already-bad situation that much more dire.

Bob Barthel, who took over his family’s Barthel Fruit Farm in Mequon in 1979, describes this year’s crop as the worst he’s ever seen. “We lost a large percentage of our crop, probably 90%,” he says. “This is the smallest crop we’ve ever had, and that includes when my dad ran the farm. We’re just hoping this is the end of the bell curve.”

To account for the reduced crop, this year Barthel Fruit Farm has stopped offering pick-your-own apples, a draw that typically accounts for much of its business. The farm also won’t be able to produce apple cider this year.

The good news, Barthel says, is that while many varieties of apples froze out completely, several survived in reduced crops, and they taste delicious. The catch is that they won’t be available for long. The early bloom this year means that the apple season began two or three weeks earlier than usual. Where Barthel’s crop usually lasts through November, if not the first week of December, this year he’ll be lucky to get through the end of October, which will likely disappoint bakers hoping to make fresh apple pies this Thanksgiving. “Don’t wait to buy apples this year,” he cautions.

Pear crops were similarly damaged, but other crops have fared better than apples, Barthel says. It was a good year for strawberries, and late-summer rains have resulted in abundant gourds and big, healthy pumpkins, so his farm will be able to offer its usual pick-your-own pumpkin patch.

But farmers aren’t completely out of the woods. Even if the weather is more cooperative next year, trees stressed by this year’s drought may not bloom, so Barthel is preparing for another potentially disappointing crop next year. “Working on a farm, I never have to go to a casino,” he jokes. “Every day here is already a gamble.”