Harvest season is upon us, and a traditional fall favorite is being picked from trees all across Wisconsin.
It’s difficult not to think about apples when you think of fall, with changing colors on the trees and crisp days. But apple harvest in Wisconsin actually starts in July with some early varieties and runs through mid-October. The Wisconsin Apple Growers Association says there are commercial orchards in 57 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — about 3,100 acres that produce 54 million pounds of fruit worth more than $24 million.
There are several apple festivals in the state each fall, including the 59th annual Apple Festival this weekend in Gays Mills and the 56th annual Bayfield Apple Festival to be held Oct. 6-8. Galesville holds its annual Apple Affair on Oct. 7.
We can thank the Pilgrims for bringing apples to our country. Many credit John Chapman — better known as Johnny Appleseed — for spreading them across the wilderness in the 1800s, but those apples are not the apples grown in commercial orchards today.
Apples intended for eating are all grown from trees that have been grafted. Apple trees grown from seed will not resemble the apple from which it came because the genetics will change. Johnny Appleseed’s trees were grown for making hard cider and are sometimes called spitters, which is what you do after you taste them.
Henry David Thoreau in his 1862 essay “Wild Apples” said an apple grown from seed tastes “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.”
Our farm is blessed with dozens of wild apple trees dotting our woods. Many of them are indeed spitters. When I was young we still had a spot located on the edge of one of our hilltop fields fittingly called “The Orchard” where about a dozen apple trees grew.
It was always tempting to test the crop when we were baling second crop in July but I was always warned to not eat too many sour green apples or I would get a stomach ache. But when we returned later in the season, all the low-hanging apples had been eaten by cows or deer.
We’ve been conditioned to think that all apples must be blemish-free, perfectly round and deep red in color. I’ve found for the most part that apples of those types are all show and no go. They are like airbrushed fashion models.
The wild trees are tough. We’ve got one tree that was half-uprooted by the wind storm of 1998, but it has continued to produce and is one of our earlier ripeners.
We have planted some domestic trees around the yard — with lots of failure and some success. It’s a challenge keeping rabbits, deer and an occasional roaming ram from inflicting damage on the trees.
And just like other forms of farming, the weather is a challenge. In 2016 our trees were in full bloom the second week of May when overnight temperatures dropped into the lower 20s — killing all the buds.
This year spring was more kind and we have a bumper crop on some of our dwarf trees. Several of the trees should have been thinned because the branches have split due to the weight of fruit. As Thoreau quoted from an old English manuscript, “The mo appelen the tree bereth, the more she boweth to the folk.”
This past year my son and I went halves on an apple press because Ross is interested in making hard cider. There will be plenty of juice this year. Other apples will be peeled and cut up to be frozen — perfect for apple pies or applesauce during the winter. Cows, pigs, sheep and chickens enjoy them too.
It’s a long harvest season but it will come and go quickly. There’s a big apple tree on a hilltop field that never ripens until late October. Several years ago on a cold and blustery day my wife, Sherry, and I used the apple picker to harvest a half-dozen or so large pails and boxes of apples from the tree. I used the box of the pickup truck and a stepladder to extend the reach. The fall colors were nearly gone; the light drizzle was intermingled with white flakes. The tree was bare and the wind was cold.
We headed home for a hot bath and I started the wood stove.
Apple season was over.