Orchards feel the heat, county enters drought phase 3

Kristen Hansen helps her 1.5-year-old son Jack pick a peach as they visit Holmberg Orchards in Gales Ferry with family members on Sunday August 21, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Emily Castle, left, and her mother Debbie, from Stonington, fill buckets with peaches at Holmberg Orchards in Gales Ferry on Sunday August 21, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

A Sansa apple, one of the first breeds to be ready for picking, on a tree at Holmberg Orchards in Gales Ferry on Sunday August 21, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Emily Castle, from Stonington, searches for peaches to pick from Holmberg Orchards in Gales Ferry on Sunday August 21, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Autumn apples feel the heat of summer.

New London and Windham counties entered a stage 3 drought last week, meaning water supplies, agriculture and natural ecosystems are more likely to be affected compared to stage conditions. 2.

For Russell Holmberg of Holmberg Orchards in Gales Ferry, conditions have never been so dry since his grandfather ran the business.

“It’s drier than I’ll ever remember,” said the fourth-generation farmer.

Although apple trees are inherently deep-rooted crops – meaning their roots reach several meters into the earth and can reach deep water reserves – the fruit itself suffers.

While Holmberg said the amount of this year’s crop will be smaller, so will the fruit itself, depending on the variety. Of the 30 apple varieties that Holmberg has to offer, Honeycrisps treat both sunburn and smaller sizes.

Apple sunburn is becoming a national problem, Holmberg said, with changes in apple varieties, industry and natural climate all playing a role. He said it really becomes a problem when the fruit starts to crack and rot on the tree. So far his apples are slightly discolored, but his biggest problem has been the birds.

Rick Whittle, owner of Willow Spring Farm in Mystic, agreed.

“It’s a problem that we usually never have,” Whittle said. “They wreak havoc in the treetops.”

Whittle said he was dealing with crows pecking at the crops atop his old Macintosh trees, thinning out an already thin crop. Whittle and Holmberg speculated that the birds go for fruit because their normal watering holes have dried up during the drought.

Although some viticultural practices have made their way into the apple world, such as removing the leaves to expose the fruit to more sunlight, netting to prevent birds from reaching the fruit has not. Whittle said he had a solution instead of spending money buying enough netting to cover 18-foot-tall trees.

“I think the apples are going to be a week earlier than normal,” said Whittle, who normally starts harvesting her crops around Labor Day.

Karen Scott and her family at Scott’s Yankee Farmer in East Lyme think the same way.

“Sometimes we just can’t wait any longer,” Scott said. “That we have to pull Macintoshes off the tree because they’re falling.”

In addition to his Macintosh harvest, Scott said his Blondee apples were smaller than usual. She had ‘no complaints’ about the Paula Reds they picked last week, but said the farm crew had to ‘thin out’ some of the crop, meaning they have deliberately dropped some apples for the strongest to survive. Her husband, Tom, said it was also a way to protect old branches.

However, both Scott and Holmberg have been delighted with their peach harvests this year. The lack of rain has allowed sugar levels to concentrate, giving the fruit a strong flavor. Scott is still worried about the rain for his other apple varieties, like Ida Red, Empire and Granny Smith, which are harvested later in the season and whose color can benefit from cool fall nights.

“There are good things and bad things, but we always want rain,” Scott said.

Like other farms and orchards in southeast Connecticut, Holmberg knows the rain will come sooner or later.

“We’ve done it long enough to know it’ll be average and the rain will come,” Holmberg said. “We’re just going to be patient. It will happen. It’s always like that.

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