It was a much different year when Dwain Merickel planted his first 1,000 apple trees in 1988.
“That was the driest summer I ever experienced. We had to water and water and water.”
This year, with 18,000 trees covering 400 acres at his Irish Mountain Orchard between Madison Lake and Elysian, Merickel is dealing with the opposite.
“I don’t remember a season like this. Our rainfall used to be about 30 inches a year and last year we had 60 inches and this year we’ll have about the same.”
The cool wet spring and persistent rain since means a late harvest for some apples, particularly the public’s favorite, Honeycrisp.
“They look good but but they’re two weeks late, they didn’t bloom until the end of May. They won’t be ready until the end of September.”
Merickel is opening for public sales this Sunday, after being able to pick Zestar, an earlier apple.
Ross Nelson, on the board of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association, said that in many parts of the state there is a big shortage of Honeycrisp.
“I know some people with big orchards that have maybe 20 bushels and they usually have thousands of bushels.”
Nelson, who runs Nelson Apple Farm near Webster, between Faribault and Burnsville, said no one, including University of Minnesota apple experts, are sure why the Honeycrisp didn’t produce in some areas. He said the added moisture wouldn’t have caused it, but speculates the severe 30-plus below weather last winter might have.
Otherwise, he said, the crop looks great.
“I talk to a lot of growers. They’re happy with their crop. The sizing looks good, the tastes are coming around. The warm days and cool nights change the starches to sugars and that’s happening every night now, which is a great thing.”
Nelson used to have a large orchard but is now down to 2,000 trees. The 77-year-old said it’s good for his health.
“I go 11 hours a day. I go to the Vet’s Clinic and they say, whatever you do don’t get rid of that orchard. It’s good for you,” Nelson said
Zestar a favorite
Unlike last year, Merickel hasn’t seen much disease from the wet season.
“We didn’t even pick our Honeycrisp last year because they had so much mildew.” This August he sprayed a fungicide that guards against problems like mildew and fly speck and so far he hasn’t seen any problems.
He said that while Honeycrisp remains the king of Minnesota apples, Zestar is his favorite. “They’re a little sweeter and not quite as hard.”
He hasn’t planted a couple of more recent University of Minnesota-developed apples — Sweet Tango and First Kiss — which have also grown in popularity.
Pazzaz apples, developed by a Wisconsin grower, are also widespread, but this year’s crop won’t be ready to eat for quite a while.
“They aren’t ready until February or March — they have to stay in storage to taste good,” Merickel said. He said the apples were developed because of their ability to be stored a long time. “They still have some Pazzaz in the stores, but they’re from last year.”
He said many apple dealers go far south to grow other varieties of apples that can be available in stores in the winter and spring. “A packer I deal with planted an orchard of Honeycrisp in Chile and he brings them up here in the spring and summer and sells them for $4 a pound in the store. So I imagine he’s doing well with those.”
Some older varieties of apples, like Fireside and Haralson, won’t be ready until later in the fall. “People recognize the names of the older varieties and ask for them.”
He also has other varieties, including Stella and Fireside/Connel Red, as well as pears and crab apples. Irish Mountain is open Sunday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. They also bag apples and sell them to grocery stores in Minnesota and across the Midwest.
Merickel said the back-to-back years of too much water is starting to affect some of his trees. “Some of my Honeycrisps are dying because they don’t stand wet feet very well. It’s hard to breed any apple that can take 60 inches of rain.”
With so many trees, Merickel has a crew of about eight to pick apples throughout the fall.
“We’ve had lots of help picking from the Hispanics over in Le Center that work the corn pack, which is done about when we start picking apples. They’re very good help.”