Charlie Smith of T.S. Smith and Sons Orchards in Bridgeville says apple picking time has arrived.

Native Delaware: Apple time

Apple picking already in full force at Delaware area orchards

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9:19 a.m., Aug. 28, 2012--Summer means lazy days at the beach or pool, after-dinner trips to the ice cream stand and – this summer, anyway -- outings to U-pick apple orchards. 

Apple picking – typically synonymous with autumn weekends – is in full force at T.S. Smith and Sons Orchards in Bridgeville. “We finished picking Gala apples on Aug. 9. Normally, we don’t even start picking Galas until Aug. 19,” reports orchard co-owner Charlie Smith. “Everything is coming in much earlier this season.”

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“Our U-pick operation has been open for several weeks and will run every weekend until all the varieties are finished – probably between the end of September and middle of October,” he says.

Because of the mild winter, apple trees flowered ahead of schedule at T.S. Smith and Sons and other area orchards. “Usually, the trees aren’t in blossom until right around my birthday -- April 20. This year, they were blooming on April 1,” says Smith.

In Delaware, temperatures stayed mild throughout the spring so early blossoming wasn’t a problem – it just made for the earlier-than-usual crop. But in Michigan and parts of New England, spring frosts wreaked havoc during a growing season that was running about a month ahead of schedule.

An early April frost is estimated to have wiped out more than 50 percent of the apple crop in southwest Michigan. In Vermont, damage wasn’t as bad; yields were expected to be down 10 to 20 percent, according to the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association.

T. S. Smith and Sons has been busy shipping to locations that normally purchase northern apples, in addition to maintaining its regular distribution throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The orchard is one of two large-scale, commercial apple growers in Delaware. The other is Fifer Orchards, outside of the town of Wyoming. Several smaller orchards sell apples wholesale and one, Highland Orchards, in north Wilmington, only sells direct to consumers at its farm store.

Yet, even with just a handful of orchards, apples are Delaware’s most important fruit crop, says Gordon Johnson, a fruit and vegetable specialist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.  More than 10.4 million pounds are grown here annually. Peaches, the number two crop, trail behind at around 1.2 million pounds.

At Fifer’s, they began packing apples for commercial shipments Aug. 16, though local sales began much earlier. “We used to ship to Florida and to other long-distance locations,” says Michael Fennemore, a fourth-generation Fifer family member who works on the farm. “But we took a look at transportation costs and realized it made more sense to concentrate on the Mid-Atlantic market. For example, we now sell apples to Wegmans and Harris Teeter grocery stores in the Washington, D.C., area.”

Fifer’s has been in business since 1919. In its early days, word of mouth helped drive sales, as friends and neighbors talked up the orchard’s produce. Today, word of mouth is still a key part of Fifer’s marketing strategy – the only difference being that people talk online, rather than at the general store or the Grange Hall.  

Fennemore is responsible for the orchard’s social media efforts and uses everything from Facebook to Twitter to get the word out. The orchard has more than 5,000 followers on Facebook, who keep up a steady conversation of comments and questions. 

“I tweet, for example, when Rambo apples are ripe and available in our farm store,” says Fennemore. “People tell me that they have been in line at the bank window or on another errand and head over to the farm when they see our tweets.”

Given the early season, devotees of particular apple varieties should pay close attention to such tweets. “Honeycrisp are really popular and have a lot of fans,” he says. “People expect to come out and get them in October, but this season, we could run out of Honeycrisp by mid-September.”

A common topic on Fifer’s social media sites is what’s happening at the farm that week. Agri-tourism is an important component of the business, with activities ranging from an Asparagus Peak Party in April, to kick off the growing season, to a Cider Fest held late November to mid-December.

Currently, the orchard is gearing up for its Fall Fest, which starts Sept. 19 and will run Mondays-Saturdays until Oct. 27. In addition, U-Pick apples opened yesterday and will continue as long as the apples do.  As Fifer’s website notes, U-Pick is a “great way to enjoy a crisp fall day and experience tree ripened apples.”

This season, it’s also been a great way to enjoy tree-ripened apples on sultry summer days.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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