Favorable growing conditions ripen apples early

LAKE CITY, Minn. — You may want to call ahead and visit orchards earlier than normal this year.

Apple season has arrived a week to 10 days early in Minnesota due to favorable growing conditions.

According to the Minnesota Apple Growers Association, average statewide harvest date for Zestar! was Aug. 18, compared to Aug. 30 last year. Honeycrisp is estimated to arrive in early to mid-September.

This time of year is "insanity" says Dennis Courtier, Pepin Heights Orchard president, but quality employees help things go smoothly.

Started by his parents in 1949, the orchard is made of 300 acres between two sites. 


Harvesting and packing began Aug. 25. In the early afternoon, Courtier was in his truck, ascending a steep slope to get to trees on top of a bluff overlooking Lake Pepin.

A harvest crew was already there, picking SweeTango apples. 

Pepin Heights has an exclusive licensing agreement with SweeTango's developer, the University of Minnesota, to commercialize the variety. It's a cross between Zestar! and Honeycrisp. This is the second year it's available.

The apples are hand-picked by employees, who snip off stems and place the fruit in buckets strapped to their chests. When the buckets get full, they're emptied into a large bin. They will be taken to the orchard's packing plant. 

Pepin Heights employs approximately 40 pickers through the harvest season, which wraps up around late October.

Hail hit this particular patch of trees, and Courtier spoke his limited Spanish with the Hispanic crew's leader to figure out which apples should be harvested and which to leave.

Most of the orchard's trees look young and are growing with the support of trellises, giving more of an appearance of a vineyard rather than orchard. Tree trunks are grafted to a root stalk that constrains the growth of the tree, but not the fruit.

Courtier is an apple connoisseur after 30-plus years of running the orchard, and describes apple flavors as one would describe wines.


"It finishes like a pear," he said of one. 

He is always testing new varieties and is licensed with USDA to grow apples from different countries. He walks in his test plot with a knife, slicing and sampling. 

He uses iodine to learn the fruit's maturity. 

"If you spray half an apple with iodine, the darker it stays, then more of the starches have not converted to sugar and the more immature it is," he said. 

The color is compared to a multi-point scale to rank maturity. 


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