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Apple trees devastated by spring damage produce diminished fall crop

09/24/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 11/24/2012 05:12 EST
LONDON, Ont. - It's a bad year for apples, at least in Ontario, and now, when that fruit should be appearing in grocery stores and when pick-your-own excursions should be in full swing, consumers are starting to realize just how bad it is.

It was well documented in the spring that unseasonably warm temperatures in March prompted premature blossoming of apple trees and then heavy frosts in April killed many of those blossoms.

"Basically most growers have hardly any crop at all," says Brian Gilroy, chairperson of Ontario Apple Growers. He anticipates overall provincial production will be only about 15 per cent of the 10 million bushels normally expected. And since Ontario grows almost 40 per cent of the nation's apples, the ramifications will be widespread.

McIntosh, Ontario's No. 1 variety, "has been affected very severely in most areas," says Gilroy, who has an apple farm near Meaford, Ont. Empire, second on the list, fared even worse. "The estimates are that we've lost 98 per cent of the Empire."

The Gala variety "has come through better than most ... and there's going to be a few Northern Spies, but certainly not even a quarter of a crop."

To add insult to injury, the cost of harvesting has skyrocketed because it's so time-consuming and labour-intensive to search the trees for the few apples that might be marketable.

At the grocery store, prices for fresh Ontario apples don't have to go up too much if the retailers take smaller margins, Gilroy says. But processed apple products "are going to be significantly more expensive ... because the processors still need apples to meet their contracts for juice and pie filling."

Of the other four apple-producing provinces — Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, in diminishing order of production — only Quebec's crop was affected by the unfavourable weather, but "to a lesser degree," says Agriculture Canada. But western New York State and Michigan, the second- and third-largest apple-producing American states, are in the same position as Ontario — Michigan "maybe worse," Gilroy says. Mexico's crop is also down.

The good news for apple lovers is that Washington state, which grows almost as many apples as the rest of North America put together, has a bumper crop this year. Even in a normal year, Gilroy says, more Washington state apples are sold in Ontario than Ontario apples.

In the past, many people have taken apples for granted, says Gilroy. But not Darcel Markgraf, an "orchardist" (apple grower) on the east side of Kelowna, B.C. With a background in nutrition, she also develops apple recipes for BC Tree Fruits Ltd., a marketing agency for B.C. apples.

"I use apples in everything," she says. She cans applesauce for the winter and also pie filling if she has time.

"I use them for baking. I stick one in the kids' lunch boxes every day. Anything I make that's in one pot — chili, spaghetti sauce, curry — generally has a few apples grated in. I don't even peel them."

The reason, she explains, is nutrition. The added apple doesn't affect the taste of these amalgamated dishes but gives her family the benefits of a partial serving of fruit and adds fibre. In some cases, the apple also eases the acidity of other ingredients.

When you want to see and taste the apple, she says, "generally speaking, the lighter an apple feels in your hand, the more likely it's going to be a baking and cooking apple."

Lighter-weight apples break down more under high cooking temperatures, she says, so are better for making applesauce or cakes, while heavier apples are better for eating raw or when you want the fruit to keep its shape, such as baked apples.

"But what I've always found, no matter what I'm cooking, I get a better flavour profile if I mix the two (light and heavy) together."

For her own applesauce, she combines lighter Macs with heavier Galas. "You get that beautiful McIntosh flavour, but then you get a bit of the texture of the Gala."

For pies, where you want to see whole slices of apple, it's still possible to use a lightweight apple, but she advises either sauteing the sliced apples over a really low heat for about 10 minutes or putting them in the microwave on medium-low for one or two minutes. It stabilizes the pectin and the apple slices hold their shape better. In both cases, let the slices cool before adding them to the pie.

Apples should be stored in the refrigerator crisper in perforated bags to maintain their crispness, juicy texture and full flavour, advises Ontario Apple Growers. They also should be stored separately from other produce as the ethylene apples emit can speed up ripening in other fruits and vegetables.

The growers also offer a few cooking tips: Three medium apples equal about 500 grams (one pound); one medium apple yields about 175 ml (3/4 cups) of apple slices; and to prevent browning when preparing apples, sprinkle cut surfaces with lemon juice.

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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