An apple a day

September 22, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

As Hurricane Irene approached Delaware, those of us who weren’t ordered to evacuate searched for ice, gas and batteries, and secured lawn furniture and trash cans. But at Highland Orchards in North Wilmington, there wasn’t time for anything but harvesting.

“It was all hands on deck – the goal was to pick apples, peaches and everything else that was ripe or near ripe before the storm blew through,” recalls orchard co-owner Ruth Linton. Her 10-year-old daughter, Katya, picked apples while her 82-year-old mother, Elaine Linton, cut flowers that are sold in the orchard’s retail shop.

For several days straight, the Lintons and their employees labored to save the early apple harvest and, for the most part, were successful. But they couldn’t do a thing but about the mid-season varieties, which weren’t ready to pick.

Those apples – galas, ginger golds and Paula reds – blew right off the trees. A few tree limbs came down, too, but not many, thanks to Linton’s pruning work last spring. “Pruning out smaller limbs protects from wind damage because it gives the larger limbs more room to sway,” she says.

Like many Delawareans, Linton lost power during the storm; in her case for three days. That meant no cold storage for all those just picked apples. Fortunately, she was able to rent a refrigerated truck but it took hours to move the apples from cold storage to the truck and eventually back to cold storage.

Today you’ll find an ample supply of apples at Highland’s shop, just not as many varieties as usual.

“Normally, we have about 10 varieties of apples in early September but we only had three varieties earlier this month,” says Linton. “Currently, we’re offering 10 to 12 varieties; usually we have 15 to 20 varieties in mid-September.”

Linton says that late-season varieties weren’t impacted by the hurricane because, at that point, those apples were small so they weren’t blown off the trees. As long as rainy conditions don’t persist she says the late-season crop should be good.

“It’s been a crazy weather year,” says Linton. “First it was wet, then very dry and then very wet.”

But the family has seen worse. “From ’33 to ’34 during the Great Depression we had total crop failure. There was a drought the first two years and then a hurricane knocked down all the trees,” she says.

“So, 2011 is not the worst weather we’ve ever seen, it’s just the worst in the last 75 years.”

Fifer Orchards, outside the town of Wyoming, fared a bit better than Highland. “We were very fortunate that we were able to harvest what was ready before the hurricane and that most of the apples remaining on the trees were fine,” says Mary Fifer Fennemore, a co-owner of Fifer’s. “We did have some fruit on trees get knocked around and bruised, and some apples ended up on the orchard floor. A few peach trees were blown over but all the apple trees remain standing. We really got lucky; the forecast had predicted a lot more wind.”

Despite hurricane hassles, Fifer Fennemore says that the 2011 apple season is going strong. But, if you have a favorite variety, don’t delay your trip to Fifer’s or to your favorite farm stand or farmers’ market. “The crop is running about 10 days early because of the summer heat,” she says.

The dwarf trees in Fifer’s U-Pick orchard are in particularly good shape and abundant with fruit now. U-Pick is only open on Fridays and Saturdays; when it re-opens this Friday, Fuji and Mutsu varieties should be available for picking and possibly Stayman. U-Pick began operations several years ago to expand on the orchard’s successful Fall Fest and other agri-tourism activities. Fall Fest, which starts tomorrow and runs through Oct. 29, features corn mazes, pumpkin painting and other seasonal fun.

But don’t let the tricycle and rubber ducky races fool you. Fifer Orchards is a working apple orchard, one of only two large commercial apple growers in Delaware. The other, T&S Smith, is located in Bridgeville. (In addition, there are a few smaller orchards that sell wholesale. Highland only sells direct to the consumer via its farm store.)

Even with just a handful of orchards, apples are Delaware’s most important fruit crop. More than 10.4 million pounds are grown here annually, according to Gordon Johnson, a fruit and vegetable specialist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. Peaches, the No. 2 crop, trail behind at around 1.2 million pounds. A large part of the state’s apple crop is sent to processors to be turned into everything from cider to applesauce.

Fortunately, there are plenty of Delaware apples set aside for the fresh market. Look for local apples in area grocery stores and at farm stands and farmers’ markets. Go to the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s website, and click on farmers’ markets or on-the-farm-markets to find one near you.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

Also available online on UDaily

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Sweet watermelons

July 15, 2011 under CANR News

Delaware watermelon connoisseurs are enjoying the moment – local watermelons are now ripe and ready to enjoy. Local watermelons are sweeter and tastier than the out-of-state melons available earlier in the summer, claim their aficionados.

“Local watermelons do taste pretty sweet. And buying local produce when it’s in season helps to support our local growers,” notes Phillip Sylvester, agriculture agent for Kent County Cooperative Extension.

The state’s watermelon crop typically ripens by July 10 and continues through Sept. 25, with the most active harvest period in mid-August.  Delaware’s watermelon industry has declined slightly in recent years but is still strong.  There are more than 2,700 acres of watermelon in Delaware, down from 3,000 acres five years ago. Crop production is currently valued at $11 million annually.

Sylvester always plants watermelons in his home garden in Felton but the bulk of commercial growing takes place further south, in and around Laurel. The well-drained, sandy soils in western Sussex County are excellent for watermelon growing.

This area has been the seat of Delaware’s commercial melon industry since the 1850s, when schooners loaded with watermelon traveled the Nanticoke River to Baltimore and points beyond. More recently, the Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market opened in 1940 to bring wholesale watermelon buyers and sellers together. At one time the price of virtually every Delaware watermelon was negotiated at the Laurel Market. Today, supermarket chains send brokers directly to growers but the market is still used by small- and medium-sized buyers.

Sylvester grows “Crimson Sweet” watermelons because he says they have an exceptionally sweet taste. But this striped heirloom melon will never win any popularity contests, tasty as it might be, because of what some view as an unforgivable downfall – its seeds.

“I don’t care if a watermelon has seeds,” says Sylvester, “but most people do.”

In the 1990s, less than 1 percent of watermelons were seedless. Today, about 75 percent of the watermelons sold in the U.S. are seedless varieties. A seedless watermelon plant contains three sets of chromosomes and is sterile so it must be pollinated by a second plant to set fruit. As a result, growers must pay strict attention to the pollination needs of their seedless watermelon crops. Most growers rent or own honeybee hives but some have started to use bumblebees. UD bee researcher Debbie Delaney and Cooperative Extension fruit and vegetable specialist Gordon Johnson are working with watermelon growers this summer to see if bumblebees improve crop productivity.

Kate Everts also is conducting watermelon research but her projects focus on combating Fusarium wilt. This pestilent pathogen causes one of the most economically significant watermelon diseases worldwide. It causes wilt and plant death early in the season and again when the plant is in fruit. Once a field exhibits severe Fusarium wilt, it’s off limits for watermelon growing for 15 or more years.

Everts, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Delaware and the University of Delaware, collaborates closely with Extension specialists Emmalea Earnest and Gordon Johnson. Her research team focuses on several areas: they’re developing plants resistant to Fusarium wilt, exploring chemical disease measures, and looking at how cover crops can suppress this nasty fungus.

Sylvester is diligent about helping commercial growers obtain maximum yields but when it comes to his own watermelon plot, he adopts a laidback attitude. Though the ag agent know his way around a garden, sometimes pests or weather get the best of his watermelons. Every spring he tells himself “maybe we’ll have watermelons, maybe we won’t.”

However, this summer he hopes for a bumper crop because his 1 1/2-year-old son, Henry, shows a liking for watermelon. What could be better than a “Crimson Sweet,” grown in the backyard by Dad?

Article by Margo McDonough

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