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  • by Tom Eastman

Autumn's Delicious Harvest - Growing Apples in Northern New England

The autumn of 1979 was a good season for apple growers in Northern New England, considered by many to be the best in recent memory. Cool nights and warm September days resulted in an exceptional harvest in terms of quality, yields and size of individual apples. While it is still early to say for sure just what kind of harvest will accrue by the end of next month, agricultural officials and growers are expecting another good year.

According to Carroll County Extension Agent David Sorensen, there are eight major orchards in Carroll County. Most of them are of 10 to twenty-five acres in size, with a total of approximately 70 acres of apple trees across the entire county. Sorensen visited three commercial orchards on Tuesday and said that he was impressed with the prospects for this year's harvest so far. "All we need are a few more cool nights to help the apples darken in color. Other than that, the crops look good," the County Agent said.

As with any agricultural venture, growing apples commercially is, in Sorensen's words, at best a chancy operation. Weather, insects, diseases, rodents -- thei list of potential hardships is almost endless, any one of which could destroy one year's crop and a year's worth of work. "There's no question - growing any crops like apples is hard work. It's possible that you could lose your shirt if you're not alert, but it's still an economically feasible way to make a living," Sorensen commented.

Two growers who would agree with the county agent's remarks are Tom McSherry and his son John of McSherry's Orchard, a commercial orchard located in the rolling hills near Sweden, Maine. Located on what was once the pastureland of two farms before Tom bought them out in 1935, the McSherry Orchard now consists of 60 acres' worth of apple trees. The yield from those trees depends on the factors mentioned by Sorensen and many others. Aside from the weather, foremost among them would be their commitment to producing some of Maine's best apples. As Tom said while overseeing the early harvesting of this year's apples, "It's a year-round fight trying to ensure that your harvest will be a good one, but the rewards are well worth the effort required."

Tom works mostly in an advisory capacity now, consulting with John and advising him in between running a nursery in Center Conway. Both begin preparing for the following season as soon as the current harvest is completed, usually at a time toward the end of October. During November, the McSherry's prune some of their trees and perform other routine maintenance chores such as repairing the deer fence encircling the orchard, and placing mice poison near the ground. The latter measures are necessary to protect the agricultural and economic health of the orchard, since wintering deer eat the buds on the trees while the mice girdle the trunk and eat the roots. The result of such activity is a damaged yield for the following season at the least and a dead tree at worst. "A bud is capable of producing three to four apples annually for up to eight years. Once it is destroyed, it's off the tree for good and that production is going to be hurt as a result," County agent David Sorensen explained in discussing the problem.

Virtually no work is done in the orchards during the winter months of December and January, but Tom and John head back to the field on snowshoes in February to begin pruning the limbs again in earnest. By late April or May, the McSherry crew fertilizes and begins spraying the orchard for protection against blighting spores and insects, the first of many such efforts required throughout the summer growing season. Specifically, the sprays are intended to combat four common agents: "scab", railroad and red worms and a prominent insect known as plum curculio. Of the four mentioned, "scab" demands a constant awareness of the weather on behalf of the growers, according to John. "It's a fungus disease in the air which is very similar to yeast spores. They're always there, and you especially have to spray the trees after it rains. The warmer it is, the faster the chances are for an infection. "If the grower fails to take action, the result of the spores is a blighted appearance on the apple, thereby reducing its commercial value."

The weather during the spring is also a major factor determining the health, quality and volume of the fall's harvest. The McSherrys' hire a beekeeper from Stowe, Maine, to bring in three beehives to facilitate the all-important pollination process. "More than anything, the pollination period determines what kind of harvest you're going to have. If the temperature is constantly below fifty-five degrees or it it's too windy, it could be a bad year," Tom explained.

Spraying continues throughout the five-month Northern New England growing season. The fields are hayed in the middle of the summer; by September, the apples are near mature size. The warm days allow the fruti to continue to grow, while the cooler nights darken the color and sweeten the fruit. Using County Agricultural Extension office estimates, growers then plan their expected harvest.

The largest problem that the growers face when that time comes is finding full time help to assist with the picking. In the McSherry's case, a few fishermen are hired from Nova Scotia during the lobster off-season, a period which coincides with the harvesting season for apples. "Prior to 15 years ago, we never had a problem in rounding up enough local help to do the picking. In the past, we always seemed to have many women working in the orchard, something which is no longer the same," Tom stated, noting that the local help is no longer available. Consequently, orchards such as the McSherry's apply to the federal Department of Labor in June for permission to recruit foreign workers after first checking with state employment agencies for any potential workers. "Until the past two years, we sometimes were involved in a long complicated procedure with the federal government trying to prove to them that we did in fact need the help," say John, "but it seems that they now understand that we face potential crop losses if the help doesn't arrive. Consequently, it's a much easier process."

Labor accounts for the greatest expense in the entire year-round operation of running an orchard, according to the McSherrys and Sorensen. "Hiring foreign help is definitely more costly than would be the case if we were able to hire more locals to pick. We could put high school kids to work, but you're facing a running clock when you're harvesting and you need a full crew, not just part-time help," John stated.

The eight man crew hired to harvest the orchard generally works eight straight hours six days a week, starting each day at 8am. Tractors gather storage bins at the base of the trees which have been filled by the pickers and haul them to a larger bin. Picking itself is tiring work - each man carries a ladder, tin buckets strapped around the next, quickly gathering as many apples as possible. A good picker can be expected to fill 10 bins a day, with each bin holding 15 bushels of apples. For their efforts, the pickers receive a standard rate of 50 cents per bushel, lodging and transportation costs to and from Nova Scotia.

Some of the McSherry Orchard apples are then sold at the family's nursery and cider mill in Mt. Washington Valley, although the majority of the harvest is shipped in large bins to the Maine Apple Growers Incorporated packaging area in Buckfield, Maine. There they are sorted by machines and graded for quality. The apple types common at the facility include the four found at the McSherry Orchard and others in Northern New England - MacIntosh, Red Delicious, Cortland and Golden Delicious. They are graded under four classifications on the basis of their size, quality and color: Fancy, Extra Fancy, Number One or as Utility, with the latter category being used for cider. They are then marketed in stores throughout the country and Europe under "Maine Apples"; the New England MacIntosh is one of the most sought after varieties because of its sweet taste and color.

By October 15th, most of the harvesting is usually completed, a time which John McSherry jokingly says is the time of year which he most prefers. Most growers attend organizational meetings with the New England Apple Council, the Maine Pomological Educational Society and the New York - New England Apple Institute, which give them the opportunity to keep abreast of changes in the business. Soon thereafter, it's pruning time once again, and the year-round cycle starts anew. As John McSherry said, "The success of next year's harvest all depends on the weather and work that you do this year. The work is necessary for sure - but it's also a matter of pride, In the end, though, I just get a kick out of watching them grow."

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