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Area apple growers weather calamitous conditions

Rochester Business Journal
September 7, 2012

Farming has always been a daunting enterprise. The work is hard and the hours are long. In addition to all the typical production and marketing obstacles faced by other business operators, there is the uncertainty posed by the weather. The threats are many: too cold or too hot; too dry or too wet; high winds or hail. Considering the possibilities, the farmer can only adopt a wait-and-see attitude and prepare to deal with whatever impediments nature supplies.
In much of the country, 2012 already has been recorded as a dreadful year for many farmers. That is certainly true in Western New York, where unexpected early spring heat was followed by unseasonably bitter spring cold that evolved into a torrid summer accompanied by drought.
For consumers, difficult days are ahead, days of limited supplies and prices that will be higher than expected. Those factors apply to a multitude of standard items in the produce department, but I am most concerned about apples. The apple is my favorite fruit, and New York is a major apple-producing state.
The apple has so many wonderful virtues that it is painful to contemplate life in a period when they will be scarce, when a half bushel of Empire or Jonagold will be hard to find. I am alarmed at the prospect of finding waxy apples, shipped in from Washington, China or some other faraway place, being sold at the supermarket.
For apple growers like the Oakes family of Lyndonville, 2012 will be remembered as a year like 1945. They have been growing apples for four generations. My friend, Darrel Oakes, doesn't go back that far, but he remembers how his grandfather, Leonard, would often reminisce about the awful yield of 1945.
"He used to say, 'That was the year we had no apples' and shake his head at the sad recollection," Darrel said. "The farm and the methods were much different then, but the situation is somewhat comparable. Of course we will have apples; we just won't have as many."
This was a disastrous year for area apple growers. The trouble began with those startling 80-degree days in mid-March. The record high temperatures befuddled the trees, and they blossomed early. The growers were apprehensive. Then on three successive weekends in March and early April, temperatures plummeted to the low 20s, and the orchardists all knew they were in deep trouble.
The Oakes family has 250 acres of orchards planted with 600 to 1,200 apple trees per acre, depending on the size of the trees. The average annual production is about 225,000 bushels of more than 20 different varieties.
"Our yield this year will be only about 35 to 40 percent of normal, and some varieties have been damaged more than others, depending on their ability to resist the impact of the weather," he said. "One of our most popular apples is the Empire, which we have been growing since it was first developed years ago at Cornell," Darrel said. "Typically we grow about 30,000 bushels. This year we will be lucky to get 1,000 bushels."
Among the varieties that fared better have been Fuji, Crispin, Jonagold, Golden Delicious and Rome. Some later-blooming apples were not as badly injured.
Over the years the Oakes family has developed a successful retailing business, which includes a pick-your-own program. That will be continued, but on a reduced basis. Most of the Oakeses' apples are destined for what they call "the fresh market," more than 80 retailers that sell their branded LynOaken Farms apples.
"Price is always an important consideration," Darrel observed, "but the public should be aware that apples are going to be more expensive this year, although they are still a great bargain."
The family has diversified in recent years, planting some 15 acres of grapes and forming the Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, bottling some standards like chardonnay, riesling and cabernet, as well as a number of special fruity varieties. It was a good year for wine grapes, which bloomed after the disastrous weather of spring and thrived on the heat of summer.
"When you are in this business, you find there are more good years than bad ones," Darrel said. "Often, after a year of low production the trees just virtually explode the following year, producing much more than a normal crop. We have to learn to deal with the vagaries of Mother Nature."

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.9/7/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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