Ripening Fruit

We have been coming to this little cabin near the beach in Wellfleet for the last ten years. We have the opportunity to rent it in late June and though our minds say, no, you can’t leave the farm, we rent it anyway. Otherwise, we might lose the opportunity.

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

Then I received an email from an orchard consultant, Kathleen Leahy. ‘Bad weather’ the subject line said:

Hi all,

Looks like a bunch more hail came along today and knocked out more of the crop – not all precincts have been heard from but quite a few orchards seem to have been affected. . .

This consultant reminded growers to spray strep, streptomycin that is, within twenty-four hours.  “And of course, call your insurer ASAP.” Hail pierces the skin of the apple and leaves an opening for the fire blight bacteria to enter. Fire blight can be a horrendous problem for growers. It enters the fruit and then the tree, and can also spread to other trees, killing them in a season. For the organic grower, there is little to do. Early season, we spray copper to clean any residual fire blight; but we do not spray streptomycin. We can only look for the telltale blackening of the leaves and a shepherd’s crook bend to the end of the twig, signaling that it is time to get out the loppers and remove the branch before the bacteria moves into the rest of the tree.  Damage from hail on the fruit amplifies the danger fifty-fold. I had to go home and check on the fruit.  

It’s already been a difficult season for some apple growers. Too much rain makes spraying difficult and scab (Venturia inaequalis), one of New England’s most challenging apple diseases, has been especially difficult for me to control. The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor under the trees. After a warm, rainy period, millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on the young wet leaves, the scab begins to grow, first showing up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. Gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit. The apples will develop brown crusty scabs, be misshapen, and eventually crack.

This year, every time I thought about spraying for scab, it was either raining, going to rain, or too windy.  I didn’t get enough sulfur on the trees, and when I did spray, it was immediately washed off. Sulfur is, at best, only a mediocre material to use compared to modern chemical fungicides. Sulfur works by changing the pH of the leaf surface, making it inhospitable to the scab fungus. I could use lime sulfur; it’s stronger and burns the fungus on the leaves. It’s the harshest material I have in our arsenal, but I haven’t used it in many years. Four years ago, I opened the jug, and its contents had thickened into crystals. I tried to pour off some of the amber-red liquid, but the color reminded me of the chemo drugs I've taken and every pore in my being rebeled at the idea of spraying it.

Macintosh apples are scab magnets.Our Macs are among the oldest trees in the orchard; they are large and densely planted. Even spraying in an ‘easy’ year, I have a difficult time controlling scab on them. Every year I vow to do better. But this year, our Macs look terrible. It’s doubly sad because they are in the first few rows – we have lots of beautiful and healthy fruit farther back in the orchard.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Arriving home from the Cape, I pulled into the driveway, let the dog out of the car, and immediately went on rounds to inspect the fruit. Blase had returned a day earlier to hill potatoes and had already told me that he hadn’t seen any hail. I started in the raspberry patch; all looked fine there. I pulled some weeds, found a little of the troublesome dodder, and noted that it looked like we would have quite a lot of early raspberries. The blueberries, heavy with fruit, were still a week away from the beginning of harvest. The Macs with their scab hadn’t improved; no amount of wishful thinking would do that. But I was relieved — no hail damage!

The next morning, one of the meditators who sits regularly in our meditation hut behind the orchard told me she had hail and that her neighbor’s garden flowers were completely ravaged. Then an inquiry came in from our local paper. Joan Eliyesil writes about farms and farming in Harvard and she had heard from Frank Carlson of Carlson’s Orchards that the crop on their Bolton Road apple trees was decimated, likely only good for juice. Libby Levinson, another apple grower in Harvard, told me that Bolton and Sterling got hit badly. She wanted to know about our orchard.

We were lucky this time. But there are still two months for the apples to ripen before harvest. Fruit growing is a long season of perpetual concern, like that first year your teenager drives at night and you don’t sleep until you hear the car door close. Fruit growers experience this anxiety every year. Maybe that’s why a good fruit harvest is such a cause for celebration.  Fingers crossed!