Drought, heat likely to affect Mass. apple crop

BOLTON, Mass. — In just about a month, Massachusetts apple growers will begin to harvest this year’s crop – and you can blame the drought for what will likely come in.

“I can say with the lack of rain, people can expect maybe not as big fruit,” said George Tierney, farm manager at Bolton Orchards. “I’d say we probably haven’t gotten even five inches all year – definitely not two inches in the last two months.”

And there is no substantial rain in the immediate forecast. But there is plenty of heat. Which apples don’t mind – to an extent.

“What makes a wonderful apple is high temperatures in the day and then a cool down,” said Susan Brown, PhD, a horticulture professor and the apple breeder at Cornell University. “But that’s crucial right around harvest.”

Brown said the hot, dry weather is likely to stress trees – and that could be a long-term issue – but predicts apple quality will be good this year.

One way growers attempt to enhance size and quality is by mid-season culling of apple clusters, such that the tree puts more energy into fewer pieces of fruit. Tierney explained that helps increase apple size to approximately three inches.

Tierney is also regularly irrigating blocks of trees – but it’s no substitute for regular rainfall.

Brown said apple orchards are, in general, more susceptible to drought than in the past.

“The old trees that we grew up with, where you can climb on them and use huge ladders and were freestanding, are mostly a thing of the past,” Brown said.

Instead, growers are planting smaller trees in dense clusters. While this is a more efficient way to grow apples, the root systems on these smaller trees are more shallow than their old growth counterparts.

“Unless we get rainfall or have drip irrigation, those root systems are going to be stressed, and some of the younger trees could perish,” Brown said.

Brown is also concerned about the sun-burning of apples due to the many intense, cloudless days this summer.

In fact, at Bolton Orchards, Tierney is seeing apples with what is known as “sun scald” after last week’s heatwave.

“If it stays hot and the sun is real bright and strong in the day, you’ll start to see a lot of this,” he said.

The result is a dead zone on the apple, in which the cells have perished and an ulceration is present on the skin. There is no consumer market for such pockmarked fruit – and that means a loss in yield.

Brown said what’s happening on apple orchards across the Northeast is a result of climate change.

“In the 1960s there was drought, but then we got by to about 2000 without a lot of drought,” she said. “And now we’ve had major drought in New England in 2000, 2016, 2020 and 2022. So it just shows that growers are taking an enormous risk and a lot of stress themselves, beyond the stress that the apple trees have.”

Brown hopes consumers will understand the stress growers are under and continue to support local orchards that are often multi-generational.

“They’re the ones who are really taking the brunt of this,” she said. “This is their bottom line they’re worrying about. They’re supporting their families, they’re contributing to the community.”

As July melts into August, Tierney will continue hoping for rain – but based on the pattern so far, he’s not counting on it.

“I can come up here and it’s all dark and black over there – all dark and black over there,” he said, standing atop the highest point of the orchard. “I think I’m getting rain. Never get any rain.”

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