The apple harvest is a major part of Jeannie Jayne’s business, but this summer she noticed something disturbing in her orchard.

Mired in a lengthy drought, Jayne, who owns Jayne’s Orchard in Laceyville, said the lack of moisture prevented the apples from growing.

“By the first part of August, I could tell they were going to be smaller,” she said.

At Klim’s Orchard in Lake Ariel, Alex Klim noticed a similar scenario. In the absence of rain, the trees were under stress and some of the early apple varieties decreased in size, he said.

The dry summer also impacted some early apple varieties found in the store at Ritter’s Cider Mil in Lackawanna County, according to employee Sally Brinkman.

“I can’t remember within the last 20 years the dry weather having this big of an impact on things,” she said. “Some of the Jonamac’s were the size of marbles, because of the dry.”

But all was not lost for local apple orchards. While the size of some varieties decreased, the hot, dry summer spiked the sugar content of the apples, making for an even better taste and exceptionally sweet cider.

For a year when orchards are faced with increased labor to pick smaller apples, the cider business becomes even more crucial to the bottom line.

“Our cider was sweet from the first batch. Sometimes the first cider in the early fall, you don’t have the blend yet,” Jayne said. “But this year we’re very pleased with the flavor at first squeeze, and that was because of the dry summer.”

With the apple harvest in full swing, the yield from the orchards is not only showing the impact of the summer drought, but the effects of a challenging spring as well.

According to Andrew Schwalm, president of the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania, drastic temperature swings during the early spring occurred right when apple trees were beginning to bloom. A cold snap caused the main bloom to freeze, he said, while secondary blooms survived but they typically produce a smaller apple.

The drought added another major impact to orchards, Schwalm said, as the lack of moisture inhibited trees from taking up nutrients through the soil.

While he acknowledged that the smaller, sweeter apples make for better cider, the main component of an orchard’s business is producing apples for eating. A decrease in size represents a financial hit for orchards, and the yield for some varieties was down as much as 40%, Schwalm said.

As a result of the drop in size, more apples will go for cider production and packing houses rather than eating.

But the impacts don’t end there.

“You see a lot of apples this year, but they’re tiny. That means it takes more apples to fill a bin, and it takes longer to pick them so labor costs increase,” Schwalm said. “Some workers don’t even want to pick because they’re paid by the bin, and with smaller apples it takes more time to fill them.”

He said orchards in the southeast part of the state were hit particularly hard by the drought, but the impact was felt across the state to varying degrees.

“Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest in apple production in the country (behind Washington, New York and Michigan). We will be down this year,” Schwalm said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Pennsylvania produces 400 to 550 million pounds of apples each year. In 2021, Pennsylvania apple production totaled a record 557 million pounds.

Another factor that preceded the summer drought and challenges of the spring was a spike in input costs that impacted every agricultural commodity, including apples.

While Klim said difficulty in finding labor has forced him to do most of the picking himself, he couldn’t escape the rising cost of production. Spray materials rose by thousands of dollars, tractor tires increased by several hundred dollars, and diesel and electric costs also jumped, he said.

“And on top of it all, we had a tax reassessment,” Klim said. “We tried to keep our prices in check, but on a couple varieties we had to raise the price a little bit, about $1.”

He added that competition from grocery stores, where apples are sold at a cheaper price in order to draw customers, is also concerning to orchards that sell their fruit at their own farm stands.

Schwalm said overall, 2022 was a very challenging year for the apple business in Pennsylvania.

“It seemed no matter what you did, there was a problem,” he said. “And it started with higher costs for growers – the input costs rose significantly to start the season and none of us predicted we would be facing a drought from June to August.”

Jayne said the cold weather in January and February killed the blooms on her peach trees, so the loss of that crop made the apple harvest even more important. While the dry weather even delayed the start of the apple harvest at her orchard, which usually ends by early November, it may be one of the few benefits of the drought.

“We’re seeing a strong customer turnout because of the later start. People were patiently waiting for us to start picking, and the demand has been full bore right from the start,” Jayne said. “We have loyal customers who were eager for the apple harvest to begin.”

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