Apples in local orchards are ready for plucking well ahead of a typical summer schedule.
"We picked Gala apples last week, and normally we pick them Aug. 15," said Tom Range with Braeutigam Orchards at 2765 Turkey Hill Lane in Belleville. "We always monitor everything, and these trees were showing color so we tested them and the sugar content was really high. We noticed dropping, not a lot, but some, so we picked them."
At Eckert's in Belleville, the honeycrisp apple crop is four weeks earlier than usual, according to Chris Eckert, and workers are already putting the apples into the store.
"For almost 200 years we've celebrated Mother Nature's gifts and weathered her countless challenges," Eckert said. "Although unprecedented conditions have challenged us with a ripe apple crop far ahead of schedule, we are already tasting the benefits of an early season."
In Marine and in Belleville, the early apples are exceptionally sweet.
"Some varieties look like they are going to be very good yields, but some just look like they are going to be a little bit smaller," said Sherry Chase, daughter of Jerry Mills, owner of Mills Apple Farm at 114777 Pocahontas Road in Marine. "But, they tend to be sweeter because the sugars are more concentrated."
The farm started picking the Gingergold variety around the second week of July, Chase added.
Braeutigam's is seeing fair-sized apples: Not extremely large or extremely small apples, but the lack of rain and extremely high heat have taken their toll on the trees.
"I'm in awe of these trees," Range said. "I know they are in distress, but they are diligent mothers and are suffering to protect their children. We are hoping they can bear their crop and go dormant for the rest of the year. I'm hoping we won't see any tree loss."
Chase said some of the varieties at Mills Apple Farm are ripening earlier than usual, but the biggest challenge for a pick-your-own orchard is keeping the apples on the trees for people to pick.
"With the heat, some of the trees don't want to keep the apples on," Chase said. "Sometimes, the trees are letting them stay on until they ripen, and sometimes, they don't. We can't have all the apples falling off the trees or there won't be any for people to pick, and that's a real problem. Some rainfall would be a big help."
Range echoed Chase's thoughts.
"A big part of our business is pick-your-own apples," Range said. "We are worried about the Jonathans, the Golden Delicious because so many people like to pick them in September. We want to leave them on the tree for people to pick, but we can't do it if they are getting over-mature. Right now, we are in a dilemma, so we are trying to plan both ways: Plan so people can come pick, but also pick them if they are getting mature and sell them in the store."
Braeutigam's and Eckert's haven't opened the orchards to pick-your-own yet, but Mills Apple Farm has. Range said the orchard may start offering pick-your-own earlier than usual, but he can't put an exact date on it yet. He guessed it could begin Aug. 15 or Aug. 20. Ripened apples are available already picked, he added.
Eckert's will open pick-your-own at the Belleville and Grafton farms Aug. 11.
For more information about each orchard or to find out what varieties are ready to pick, visit: www.braeutigamorchards.com or call 233-4059; www.millsapplefarm.com or call 887-4732 or www.eckerts.com or call 233-0513.
Local orchards also had an earlier- and sweeter-than-normal peach crop this year, due to weather. Peaches were available around mid-July, about three weeks earlier than usual.