How Do You Like Them Apples

By Jeff Bagdigian

Autumn. For many, it is a time of brisk mornings, exquisite foliage, and if you grew up in small town Massachusetts, or any town with more orchards than people, autumn means only two things – apple picking and tourists. Yes, tourists in their multitudes, coming from all over New England to invade tranquil towns and begin the yearly harvest and consumption of locally grown produce.


Apple picking is one of the few yearly events that make the roads of my hometown seem crowded. There is no other time of the year when it takes me 45 minutes to drive the one-mile stretch of road from my house to the town center. Don’t get me wrong, I – like any other warm-blooded resident of Massachusetts – get somewhat aggravated when I find myself at a dead standstill behind the wheel, but during the fall weekends at home the traffic I consistently find myself in doesn’t really bother me. In fact, I’m pleased to see it, for it means that the local  “Mom and Pop” farm stands and orchards are getting the business they deserve.

Odds are that if you’ve lived in New England for any period of time, or if you’ve vacationed here during the autumn months, you’ve probably gone apple picking. Honestly, who doesn’t love spending a crisp autumn day outside picking apples right from the tree and then topping the whole experience off with a trip inside the farm stand for some hot cider and donuts? Heaven. But have you ever wondered about the process of growing the apples you picked?

Having grown up in a town where the best options for employment for high school and college age students were orchards and farms, I can tell you from experience – having worked at the same orchard since I was 15 – that getting all of that produce ready for the customer takes an awful lot of work.

The fruits and vegetables you find in the farm stands aren’t like the ones you find in a supermarket. Often the fruit you find in a grocery store was picked while still unripe, frozen and then shipped to the market. This method of distribution is necessary to fulfill the demand for produce since it isn’t feasible to pick fruits and vegetables as soon as their ripe and then ship them; they wouldn’t reach the customer in time. The result of this method of production is a fruit or vegetable that while tasty, isn’t quite as flavorful or sweet as a fruit or vegetable right from the tree or ground. Granted, the locally grown produce doesn’t have as long a shelf life as those of the supermarket, but it sure does taste a heck of a lot better.

The produce you find in a farmstand is the end product of months of preparation, maintenance and a good amount of luck. Take the peach and apple trees for example. In the winter and early months of spring, preparation for the oncoming season begins. During the months of the previous year, the trees have been growing constantly, new branches have sprung up everywhere, and the tree looks more like a giant bush than the well maintained and finely-shaped specimens the customer sees upon harvest time. In order to tame the trees after a season of nonstop growth, they need to be pruned. This is just one of the many times a tree will be pruned before the picking begins. Nature doesn’t wait for us.. As soon as a tree is pruned, it starts growing again.

Fast forward to June. At this point in time, both peach and apple trees have young fruit upon their branches, and in order for the fruit to gain size and color, another round of pruning is required as well as a process called “thinning.” The trees need to be pruned again so sunlight can hit all the fruit, including those growing near the center of the tree. That way when the farmer sprays the trees for insects and fungus, the spray can hit all the fruit as well. In the case of apples, sunlight gives the apple that healthy reddish color people are used to.

As for thinning, a large fraction of the fruit on the tree needs to be removed so that the fruit still on the tree can absorb more water and grow bigger. The more fruit that’s on a tree, the smaller each individual fruit will become. An additional benefit of thinning is that heavy branches won’t overburden the tree itself, which prevents the trees from splitting under the weight. On average, each tree takes about 25 minutes to “thin” and prune. That’s 25 minutes spent on each task, assuming the work is on one of the younger trees and not the massive grandfather trees that have been around forever. Now imagine a couple thousand trees, all of which require this personal touch, and one will begin to get an idea of how much work the farmer puts in to growing the fruit.

And there is still more that can go wrong in the whole process. Tools and tractors can break down, bad weather (like Tropical Storm Irene) can uproot entire trees and knock fruit off of branches, bugs and other pests can eat fruit without paying or incompetent summer help (like yours truly) can botch the job through sheer ignorance.

So, if you should see the farmer during your apple picking journey, be sure to give that guy or gal a handshake for their efforts and compliment the undoubtedly delicious produce you have just purchased. They spent months getting those apples, peaches and veggies ready for you, and they deserve the thanks.

Jeff Bagdigian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]