"It's been an interesting year," Eric Luetgers of Timberlake Orchard said when asked about his apple harvest during a year that saw early blooms, a late spring freeze, two bad hail storms and a drought.
With that, it may be a relief to all farmers that harvest comes early.
"This summer, we had two hail storms," Luetgers recalled. "The first one damaged any of the fruit that was on the trees. The second one split the bark on the trees. At that time, we really feared the trees might get fire blight, and that would've been a devastating blow because all the trees would have gotten it. It spreads quickly from tree to tree and would have gotten them all in a matter of days.
FALL HARVEST — Eric Luetgers of Timberlake Orchard holds some of his orchard’s apples that are for sale already, but admits the harvest will be significantly lower than in previous years. Photo by Jenn Brookens
"The fire blight makes the trees look like they burnt up. We would have had to bulldoze everything. Fortunately, that didn't happen."
In spite of the setbacks, Luetgers said he still tried to remain optimistic.
"The fruit we have is nice, but there are a lot of dings in the fruit," he said. "We have a sign we put out sometimes that says, 'Dimpled by God.' It's farming, though. You deal with God, Mother Nature, and you take it as it comes ... People have to understand throughout the state, it's going to look tough. The whole region is under this issue because of the frost. And no matter how they're priced, there are some members of the public that won't buy dinged apples."
With the early bloom, harvest is about two to two and a half weeks ahead of schedule, and will stay ahead of schedule unless the area gets some needed rain.
"As dry as it is, I'm surprised there's anything out there," Luetgers said. "The trees are stressed, not just here but everywhere. I'm thankful that I have any crop at all. So far, I've picked only five percent of what's normally picked at this point in harvest."
While some types of Luetgers' apples, such as the Zestar, held out better than expected, there were some apple types that did not make it this year.
"Out of my 4,000 trees, I had 1,500 that were totally barren, did not produce a thing," he said. "With that equation, there will be a much smaller crop ... When the summer tour crop reports came out, they were giving figures from one to 60 percent harvest at the top end. I was optimistic at first, but if I got 40 percent, I would be thrilled. I believe it will be about 20-25 percent. So we had to figure out how to compensate for that."
With that in mind, the Luetgers have branched out into offering tomatoes and peaches.
"The tomatoes are ours," Luetgers said. "The peaches are from a grower in Washington. And there is a difference between these and what you get from the grocery store. The difference is the timing of the picking. The growers pick them a full week before they are ripe, and it makes a world of difference.
"These type of peaches remind me of when peaches weren't an everyday item in the grocery store. And when you bite into one, you're going to want to have a napkin handy."
And in spite of all of this year's hardships, Luetgers manages to find one more possible optimistic thought.
"Maybe we'll wrap it all up before Thanksgiving this year," he said with a laugh. "But that never happens. We stay open up to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving."
The Timberlake Orchard is located south of Fairmont on 200th Avenue. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Meanwhile, Center Creek Orchard near East Chain also saw some loss from the April freeze, but a geographical trick may have spared them from the worst.
"We had a lot of blossoms that were froze out," said Gordy Toupal of Center Creek Orchard. "We lost about 80 percent of the blossoms, but about 20 percent survived. From that, we have as many fruit as normal."
Because Center Creek Orchard is on the side of a hill, the cold air dropped into the valley while the warm air rose, which helped save most of the orchard's trees.
"If you look at orchards in La Crosse or La Crescent in the river valley, you'll see their orchards are planted like that and that's why," Toupal said. "The good blossoms we had left, we brought in beehives this year, and there was lots of pollination."
Center Creek Orchard also was missed by the hailstorms, and has seen only a minimal effect from the drought.
"We've got our trees established now, those roots are deep," Toupal said.
But Center Creek Orchard is also seeing an early harvest.
"We normally start picking around now, but the quality of the apples we're picking are the best we've had," Toupal said,
Center Creek Orchard is open to the public on the weekends starting today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The orchard is open all weekends in September and October, along with Labor Day and during the school's fall break.