Fewer apple-picking choices in suburbs this fall due to polar vortex, heavy spring rains
Apple-picking enthusiasts have fewer options this fall as several suburban apple orchards struggle to remain open after being hit hard by severe weather last winter and spring.
The Polar Vortex and record spring rains hurt apple crops at Heinz Orchard in Green Oaks, owner and farmer Anthony DeMoon said.
"Overall, I lost well over 95% of my crop," DeMoon said Friday. "Right off the bat, we were playing with the cards stacked against us."
His farm saw more than triple the amount of rain it normally gets -- more than 20 inches in two months.
"It's more rain than we have had here in the history of the orchard," DeMoon said of the farm that's been around since the 1950s. "That was on top of all the rain we had last fall, and with all the snow, the ground was so saturated."
Of the orchard's 800 apple trees, only 100 bloomed around Mother's Day in May.
"It rained during bloom. ... In the winds, rain or cold, most pollinators won't fly," DeMoon said, and that meant no apples or poor-quality ones.
The wet ground also made it hard for DeMoon to get his tractor out to spray the trees for fungus and bacteria, resulting in bug-eaten, very small or "cosmetically marked up" apples.
DeMoon typically grows five varieties of apples: McIntosh, Jonathan, empire, golden delicious and red delicious. Last year was a bumper crop, with thousands of customers every weekend of the season.
This year, DeMoon has a limited supply of empire and McIntosh and very few Jonathan apples to sell. The farm didn't produce any golden delicious or red delicious apples.
"It's part of the farming life," said the 46-year-old who bought the farm from a family friend 15 years ago. "You hope that you don't have a back-to-back year like this. We're the last u-pick orchard left in Lake County."
The orchard opened last Friday. It will reopen from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Friday and every Friday while supplies last. Bags are being sold for half price and the farm won't host any field trips or large groups this year, DeMoon said.
The loss of apple crops was much more widespread this year as a larger area in the middle of the country and upper-tier states got hit by the Polar Vortex, said Elizabeth Wahle, University of Illinois Extension educator for commercial agriculture.
"We don't usually have a problem with apples. They are not usually bothered by a cold period," Wahle said. "The caveat is when they are fully dormant, they have a mechanism to stay asleep. Once they start going through the process of waking up, they start losing that tolerance for cold. We just had a later-than-normal really cold event that got them."
"Another way to lose the crop is for it to be in bloom and for there to be a freeze event," she said. "This was the year that they got caught. It was kind of one of those perfect storms."
Severe weather led to the closure of More Than Delicious Orchard in Woodstock after more than 50 trees died. It prompted owners Mike and Velma Downes to speed up retirement plans and close the orchard they started in 1981.
Lang's Orchard and Woodstock Country Orchard, both in Woodstock, and Plank Road Orchard near Plato Center in Sycamore won't open this fall due to low yields.
Lang's owners Steve and Chris Lang said they decided to close the primarily pick-it-yourself orchard for the season because "we just don't have enough quality apples for that to occur."
"This spring was long, cold and wet. Flowering didn't occur until May 17, almost three weeks later than usual, and there was a noticeable absence of flowers on the trees," they wrote on the orchard's website.
Woodstock Country Orchard also blamed last winter's extreme cold weather and spring rains for damaging flower buds on a majority of the farm's apple trees.
The outlook is more promising at Goebbert's Pumpkin Patch and Apple Orchard in Pingree Grove. The farm has 14,000 apple trees on roughly 30 acres. The harsh weather resulted in a 40% crop yield.
"We are open for business," said Jacob Goebbert, son of owners Lloyd and Terry Goebbert. "We have a pretty decent crop of honey crisp and Jonagold. The weather hindered the yield, not necessarily the trees. We definitely were affected, but our orchard is young; we are just kind of getting into the apple business. We started planting six years ago. ... Half of our orchard is still too young to harvest from."
Goebbert said the farming industry has had a rough couple of years, whether it is corn, beans or specialty farming. But farmers, historically, have weathered such changes, he said.
"You take what comes and you do your best with what you get," he said. "We just need to prepare ourselves for whatever the forecast is and make the most of the yields that we receive."
The orchard is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Halloween.