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Lessons learned from a demanding summer as orchards approach busy season

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Like other farms in the region, orchards are adapting to the one-two punch of bad weather and a pandemic as they ramp up for their busy season.

At Whittle's Willow Spring Farm in Mystic, a late May frost wiped out 90% of the farm's apple crop. Rick Whittle, who owns the farm with his uncle William, said a frost like this has never happened in the history of their farm. William, who has lived on the property his whole 82-year life, had said he couldn't remember a similar occurrence, nor did anyone two generations prior.

"Because we're near the shore, a lot of times we escape that type of late frost or it's very minor. No, it got us," Whittle said. "Once the apple flowers and turns into that little tiny apple about the size of the end of your pinky, it has sugar in it so it doesn't freeze. It's only naked to the elements when it's flowering."

He said the unseasonably warm February and March caused orchards in northern Connecticut to bloom early, sparing them from the late frost. Because their 300 peach trees also had bloomed far enough before the frost, the peach crop came in just fine, but the only apples available are at the tops of their 700 trees; Whittle said any blooms below 10 or 11 feet fell victim as the frost settled in lower places.

Karen Scott, owner of Scott's Yankee Farmer in East Lyme, said the business' trees weren't too badly impacted by the late May frost, but a midsummer hail storm caused a lot of cosmetic damage to their fruit.

"My husband said we've never had hail," she said. "I normally might not have put some of that stuff out as a first-quality apple, but when almost every apple has (damage), you have no choice."

A friend in Canada whose orchards were damaged by hail a few years ago gave her a template for a sign to post in the orchard, telling customers that "everyone has scars" and asking them to inspect the apples before they pick them to reduce waste from discarded apples.

The ongoing drought has also created more work for both farms, requiring irrigation through the summer and the extra costs associated with running that equipment.

Scott said it was hard to plan for this season, not knowing what the farm would be able to do later in the year with the ongoing pandemic. However, planting season went forward as usual to be ready if things improved locally, and she's glad they did.

"Definitely more people are interested in pick-your-own than probably ever, just because it's something they can do as a family that they're doing outside," she said. "I think every fair in Connecticut has been cancelled for this summer or fall, so at least we still have something they can do that I feel is safe."

For the pick-your-own apples and corn maze, Scott's Yankee Farmer offers a limited number of tickets every half hour on Saturdays and Sundays; weekday visits don't require a reservation. Reservations are made at scottsyankeefarmer.net, covering up to five people with a $5 admission fee, but fees for the activities themselves are collected on site, allowing families who came for one thing to stay for the other without a separate reservation.

Because of the shortage of apples in the orchard, Whittle said, pick-your-own operations will be limited to pumpkins this year, and he'll be ordering apples from the Finger Lakes region of New York, a popular apple-growing region, for customers to buy in the farm store. He said customers are usually pretty far apart while picking pumpkins anyway, which aligns with social distancing regulations.

Their store, being in a converted garage, is considered an open-air market in terms of air flow, and they have plexiglas at the register between the cashier and customers. He said customers have been good about wearing masks.

Over Labor Day weekend, Whittle anticipated picking about 10,000 ears of corn, and he said he'd be surprised if they didn't sell out. With fewer people eating out, he's noticed an increase in produce sales for making dinner at home, saying that he's sold more yellow and green squash this year than ever before, and sales of fruit, tomatoes and beans have also been great. They'll likely have corn available in the market through Halloween.

The inside of the farm store at Scott's Yankee Farmer isn't open to the public, but the business reopened in May with curbside pickup and has been conducting summer sales through a window. Scott said she started utilizing the greenhouse, which normally sits empty once plant season is over, as an additional space for items that would have been displayed inside the store.

To reduce the number of times items are touched by different people, she said she's had to buy more packaging this year to prepare items, such as beans, cherry tomatoes and half-dozens of their popular doughnuts for sale. And customers weigh their own produce on scales at checkout.

"I've had a lot of compliments from people that really appreciate what we're doing and that they feel safe in coming here," she said.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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