The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 16, 2013

It's a Honey(crisp) of a year for apple harvest

Harvest far better than last year's ice, storm damaged crop

By Tim Krohn tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Even the names can make your mouth water: Sweet Tango, Honeycrisp, Sweet 16.

With a near perfect growing season behind them, area apple orchards are seeing a bountiful harvest.

"Things are looking very good. We have a very large crop this year," said Larry Harbo of Welsh Heritage Farm near Lake Crystal.

At A-Peeling Acres Orchard at New Ulm, Dianne Rodenberg was busy helping harvest trees heavy with produce.

"Right now it's McIntosh, the Beacon and William's Pride have come and gone. The Zestars are ready and we're getting into the Honeycrisps," she said. "The Sweet Sixteens and Haralsons should be ready in a week or two."

This season's abundance is a turnaround from last year when a very warm March, followed by a hard frost in April, killed off apple blossoms. The tough start was followed by widespread hail storms that damaged apples and slashed the harvest.

Minnesota is home to 150 apple growers who generate some 16 million pounds of fruit and generate $12.6 million.

There was a slow start to the growing season, with cool wet weather putting the bloom off by two weeks, to late May, but warm weather and good rainfall over the summer was perfect for the apple crop, Harbo said.

A new favorite at Welsh Heritage is the Sweet Tango, a newer variety developed by the University of Minnesota.

"The Sweet Tango, Honeycrip and Zestar are the three stars of the U of M," Harbo said.

Rodenberg said the work done at the university over the years has given a big boost to apple growers. "The U of M does a fabulous job with their fruit development."

Her family's orchard was started in 1985 and is owned by her mother-in-law, Patricia Rodenberg, with Dianne's husband, John, and son, David, managing the 700-tree orchard.

"We're a mom and pop operation. We pick 'em all, bag 'em all and sell them out of our apple barn," she said.

The Welsh Heritage orchards, with 1,500 trees, were started 33 years ago and the operation is in the midst of a major replanting.

"We're in the process of replanting the orchard to new trellis systems," Harbo said. "The apples are all on a trellis, they're planted three feet apart and are eight-feet tall and three wires support them," Harbo said. The closer plantings means about 50 of the old, large trees are taken out and replaced with 150 of the more compact trees.

The trellis system makes it easier to spray and manage the trees and provides a little more sun and air circulation. But the big payoff comes this time of year, Harbo said.

"The big thing in this business is getting the apples picked and it's easier with a trellis. There's more pruning and work when you start but they're easier to pick. It's the way the apple business is moving."

Inside the Welsh store on Highway 60, Harbo's wife, Libby, has been busy peeling apples and baking pies. In a nearby building, their son, Tim, has been making hard cider, a fairly new offering at the farm.

"Pressing apple cider is dictated by the number of varieties available. You need five or six different apples to make a good cider blend," Harbo said.

Rodenberg said most customers have a favorite apple they wait for, be it a Red Baron, Wealthy or Honeycrisp. "But people try new ones and they take off. A lot of people really love Sweet 16, it has crunch to it and it's sweeter."

For her, though, the old Minnesota standard — the Haralson — is hard to beat.

"The Legislature made the Honeycrisp the official Minnesota apple, but the Haralson is the unofficial one."