Workers at Pinelands Farms in Hammonton are busy picking what owner Judee DeFiccio said is a resurgent crop of apples.
After picking only about 800 bushels of the fruit last year, the farm is back to producing its average crop of about 2,000 bushels on the 20 acres dedicated to apple growing.
“This is turning out to be a good apple crop,” DeFiccio said.
But just a few miles away in the Mays Landing section of Hamilton Township, the yield at Bill Boerner’s Pleasant Valley Farm is down. This year’s harvest should be about 1,800 bushels, about 700 bushels less than the average.
“Frost (in the spring) might have gotten some of it,” said Boerner, who grows apples on about 10 acres of his farm. “The bloom wasn’t the greatest. Maybe the apple trees needed a break. They can’t produce 100 percent every year.”
The situation at the two farms is typical of what is happening at New Jersey’s apple farms this year: an earlier harvest with what the New Jersey Farm Bureau reports as “spot shortages” of the fruit.
Meanwhile, government and industry organizations also report that New Jersey’s apple crop is in its second year of decline, something growers attribute to everything from a hot and dry summer to the fruit-damaging stink bug to a decreasing number of apple farms.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Apple Association both estimate New Jersey’s apple crop — which traditionally ranks about 13th in the country — at 833,000 bushels for this year. That is about three percent less than what was grown last year, and a 15 percent decline from the 986,000 bushels of apples the state averaged over a five-year period from 2007 through last year.
Additionally, 2012 will be the second year in a row that apple production in New Jersey will not break the 1 million bushel mark. USDA statistics show the state surpassed that mark in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. A bushel of apples weighs 42 pounds.
The situation could be worse: USDA estimates the nation’s apple crop will decrease about 14 percent this year from the 224.2 million bushels that were grown in 2011. The 224.2 million bushels — which has a farm gate revenue of $2.7 billion — also represents the average amount of apples grown in the country from 2007 through last year.
The problem began with what U.S. Apple Association spokesman Mark Gedris said was a warmer-than-usual winter across the country that caused apple trees to blossom about eight to 10 weeks early.
But some major apple-producing states such as New York and Michigan then suffered a sudden blast of cold weather in April that froze apple blossoms, devastating large parts of the crop, Gedris said. The association estimates that apple production in New York and Michigan will decrease 52 percent and 85 percent, respectively, this year.
New Jersey was spared much of those bad weather conditions, causing a less drastic decline in production, Gedris said.
No information was available from the USDA on what the decline in apple production means to consumers. The New Jersey Farm Bureau reports it should drive up the cost of apples and some apple products, such as cider. Gedris would only say that he is not paying any more for apples at the supermarket than usual.
The weather patterns also pushed up the state of apple-harvesting time around the county by as much as two weeks. Apple harvesting in New Jersey usually runs from Sept. 1 to Oct. 25, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
DeFiccio, 47, is the third generation of the family to run Pinelands Farms. The site covers about 100 acres.
Even though apple trees in New Jersey mainly escaped the freeze that devastated crops in other states, DeFiccio said they still had to deal with a hot, dry summer this year. Pinelands Farms did lots of irrigation to prevent the trees from becoming stressed, she said.
DeFiccio also said that apple farmers believe apple trees will naturally slow down production some years as a way to recover strength for the following season. That could be one reason for a lack of production at Pinelands Farms last year, she said.
Apple production is also good at Sunny Slope Farm in Hopewell Township, where the fruit is grown on about 100 acres of the sprawling Cumberland County facility.
While farm manager Ron Thomas would not place a yield on the farm’s apple harvest, he said the facility will have a “full crop of apples this year.” Part of that is because the farm escaped any significant early-year freeze and was spared damage from bad weather patterns that included the June 30 storm that devastated portions of the county, he said.
“We dodged it,” Thomas said. “The storms did go around us.”
Thomas also said that the recent stretch of weather that included warm days and cool nights and mornings is helping apple production and harvesting.
“This is beautiful apple weather,” he said.
While industry officials said it is too early to predict next year’s apple crop, DeFiccio said it is already under way. Apple trees have already “set their fruit for the following year,” she said.
And while there are many issues that can affect the crop, apple farmers hope they will not see weather patterns like they encountered this year, Gedris said.
“What happened this year … is something they have never seen before,” he said.
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