BELMONT — Pick-your-own apple season is in full swing and there's still plenty of varieties available at local orchards, which are experiencing a bumper crop year on pace to exceed the 807,000 bushels harvested statewide two years ago.
''It's the best I've seen in 30 years here,'' says Rob Richter of Smith Orchard in Belmont, who says that he is at a loss to explain why this year has been so much better than other years.
''We're in touch with all of the apple growers around the state and they're saying the same thing, an abundant crop with lots of large apples, no disease or weather damage. I know it's not very scientific but I almost think that it has something to do with having an old-fashioned winter with lots of cold and snow,'' says Richter.
Last year Smith Farm was named a New Hampshire Farm of Distinction and the award was presented to Richter and his wife Wende by Governor Maggie Hassan and N.H. Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill at the N.H. Farm and Forest Expo in Manchester.
The Richters have owned and operated the farm, which offers a variety of apples including McIntosh, Macoun and Cortland, since 1985.
Rob says that he and his wife view themselves as the caretakers of a long tradition of apple growing at the orchard, which still has many of the original McIntosh and Cortland trees planted by Charlie Smith in 1928, when he was entering his senior year at the University of New Hampshire.
He says that the 15-acre field which was planted by Smith, who was a long-time Laconia City Council member, had originally been an open pasture across the road from a large farmhouse on Leavitt Road. The farmhouse burned and was replaced by a smaller home the Smith family built.
Over the years Smith hired crews of workers to pick the apples but by the 1950s, when only the reddest fruit was considered acceptable for sale and there was no wholesale market for the rest, Smith made the novel step of opening his orchard to sell directly to the public, becoming what may have been the very first "pick-your-own'' operation in the entire state.
"He told us he made more selling that way than he did on the wholesale market. And it became very popular with people coming here and picking the orchard clean every year," says Rob.
There's even a story about the tradition of opening the orchard on a Friday. Smith told the Richters that he had so many complaints from local people that out-of-staters were flocking to the orchard and getting the best apples when it opened on a Saturday that he decided to open it a day earlier so that local people would enjoy the first picking.
As the older, full-size trees are lost to old age, (some 250 remain) the Richters are replacing them with dwarf and semi-dwarf trees and now have some 3,000 apple trees.
At the Surowiec Farm on Perley Hill Road in Sanbornton this year's crop is phenomenal, according to Katie Surowiec, who says that Macintosh, Cortland and Ginger Gold are now being picked.
The seven acre orchard which her husband Steve planted in the 1980s, also grows Macoun, Gala, Empire and Honey Crisp, but those varieties aren't part of the pick-your-own operation and won't be until the semi-dwarf trees grow a little more.
There are pre-picked apples available in the farms' farm stand, which will be open through November and December and features greens and vegetables grown in the farm's greenhouses throughout the colder months of the year.
At Stonybrook Farm in Gilford the 12-acre apple orchard has about 2,000 trees, with a dozen different varieties including; MacIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Ginger Gold, and Red Delicious.
The farm offers rides in and out of the orchard on weekends and its farmstand has a wide selection of mums and pumpkins for fall decorating. It also offers homemade apple cake and fresh pressed cider.
Cardigan Mountain Orchard in Alexandria also has had an excellent year according to Nancy Bleiler, who says that Macoun, McIntosh and Cortalnd are now being picked.
''There are a lot of apples this year. Some were a little smaller than we would have liked but the Cortlands are really large, as big as grapefruit.'' says Bleiler.
She and her husband Steve moved to this small country town in the late 70s with no intention of being apple farmers, they were both teachers when they made the trek up to New Hampshire. After finding this small farm, they bought it with the intention of just trying to get some apples off of the trees for their own personal enjoyment. Over 20 years later, they both have left their careers in teaching and are now focusing their attention on the farm full time,with the help of their now three adult sons.
The orchard was very run down when the Bleilers first acquired it. After a lot of hard work, they were able to bring back almost all of the original trees and many more have since been planted. The total number of trees today numbers around 1,000.
They have 15 different varieties of apples and are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
Cardigan Mountain Orchard joined with local farmers, vendors, business people and residents to open Cardigan Country Store two year ago. They offer a wide range of fruits and vegetables, milk and cheeses as well as many handcrafted products.
Pies, jams, apple butter and other homemade products are available in the seasonal store in the fall.
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