Apple Picking

by Gary Mount

granny smith applesMany of us know the poem by Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking.” This apple grower has a copy framed and hanging in his kitchen. But as much as apple growers look forward to the “after” apple picking, much work and planning goes into the “before.”

This year at Terhune Orchards, we have a tremendous crop of apples. We have been preparing for and caring for the crop since just after the last year’s harvest. Getting ready to pick the crop involves many steps, and the first thing I think about is: Do I have enough boxes to pick into? Years ago, when Pam and I first bought the orchard, all apple picking was done into one-bushel boxes. These wooden crates held forty pounds of apples. Pickers filled the boxes and we (me and an army of high school boys) leveled them off for some reason called “cutting them down”and stacked them on a wagon for transport to the farm’s cold storage. The boxes were pushed along a roller conveyor into a large room, refrigerated to 32°F. They were then stacked by hand, box-by-box, right to the fourteen-foot ceiling, leaving only enough space for the cold air to circulate.

stacks of apple crates by Catherine StroudNeedless to say, it was not too long before we changed over to bulk bins, handled by forklifts, with each bin holding eighteen bushels and weighing 800 pounds when filled. But, I’m still faced with the same question – will I have enough?

This year, I’m just not sure.

The next question a grower must face is who will pick all these apples. My father’s farm, where I grew up, only produced one crop, apples. That meant the entire production of the farm had to be picked in a 6-week period. Enough workers had to be found, many coming from long distances, and housing and furnishings had to be provided.

Fortunately for Pam and I, we grow many crops at Terhune Orchards. The work of harvesting the farm’s production is spread over many months and, because of our retail farm marketing, work on the farm continues all year. When it comes to apple picking, the work force is already here.

Now, preparation comes down to the more technical stuff – such as when to pick? I wish it were as simple as going out to the tree, picking an apple and just crunching down. But, it’s not. The time to pick an apple is mostly determined by how it will get to the consumer. Pick-Your-Own customers want apples ready to eat, right then. The crunch test works fine for Pick-Your-Own sales.

Picking apples for sale later on is another matter. Picked too early, the apple is immature and has yet to develop its best flavor. Picked too late, apples will not store worth a darn. Apples mature slowly to a certain point. After that the ripening process advances rapidly and cannot be reversed. The trick is to pick and refrigerate the apple at full maturity but just before the start of rapid ripening.

apple tree 3There are several methods that I use to determine the best harvest date. One method I do not use is to look just at the color. Red color is a poor indicator of apple maturity. Color can be greatly affected by weather conditions around the time of harvest. One “older” method that I do use is to count the number of days since the apple tree bloomed and the apple began to grow. Each year, cold or hot, wet or dry, the number is pretty close to the average.

Then there is the techie stuff – as my wife Pam says, I am a sucker for technology. I use a handheld device to measure the firmness of the apple flesh. I use another to measure the concentration of sugar in the juice of the apple. There is also a device to measure the ripening rate of the apple. A needle is inserted into the center of the apple, where the seeds are. The air there is withdrawn and analyzed for ethylene gas concentration. All fruits produce this gas naturally as they ripen. The rate of ripening – and, therefore, the suitability for the apple to be stored for later sale – can be determined by the amount of ethylene.

Finally, there is the newest and simplest method, the Starch-Iodine test. While all this ripening is going on inside the apple, one of the most important things happening is that starch in the apple is changing to sugar – hooray! The test apples are cut in half and sprayed with an iodine solution. After a minute or two, the starch turns dark while the sugar stays light. Compare the test apples to a photo maturity chart, and you’re done.

Like many growers, I use a combination of the above methods – from the crunch test (thanks to my dentist!) to the latest, over-the-top technology. But, then, there is one more – the continuing “hope for the best” method. Sometimes, as the apple harvest progresses, it takes on a mind of its own. Workers come and go, rain keeps us from picking, our retail farm marketing takes every available pair of hands – the care-fully planned, technology-aided harvest sequence falls behind. Then, it’s a matter of working as hard as you can and just keep “hoping for the best.”