It’s been a great year for apples in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and growers are reporting high yields that are ripe and ready for the picking.

The rich green hillsides of Southwind Orchards near La Crescent are dappled with golden, red and burgundy apples.

High above the store and processing center in a grove of Honeycrisp apple trees, a group of workers climbed ladders in the trees, gently placing the fruit into bulging canvas bags.

Owner Byron Hechter said that ordinarily the popular Honeycrisp variety wouldn’t be ready for another two weeks, but the moisture and cool temperatures this year were optimal for apple trees.

“This year was pretty ideal around the state as far as growing season,” he said.

General manager Joel Chavolla said the fruit pickers, who come from a small village in the state of Michoacan in Mexico, have a special visa to be at the orchard August through October, when they return home.

Many of them have picking experience in Mexico and can pick quickly but delicately enough not to damage the fruit, Chavolla said.

Southwind sells wholesale to farmers markets, along with major grocery chains, and Chavolla said he takes pride in the 34 varieties at the orchard.

He’s convinced Minnesota Honeycrisp apples taste better than those grown in other regions like the Western U.S. or South America — though he’s not sure why.

“I really don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s something special about Minnesota apples,” he said.

Other area growers agreed that this is indeed a good year for apples.

Ralph Yates at Fruit Acres Inc. near La Crescent said an on-time spring, consistent moisture and mild temperatures throughout the growing season are contributing to a solid harvest for him.

And unlike the previous two winters, this past winter was milder, sparing trees from cold damage.

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Yates, who also serves as the secretary for the Minnesota Apple Growers Association, said most varieties statewide are nearly ready.

“I believe there’s a high-quality crop out there throughout the state,” he said.

On the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, Scott Kee, vice president of operations at Sacia Orchards near Galesville, said the harvest this year is, in a word, “fantastic.”

With the warm, sticky week before Labor Day, most apple varieties ripened at the same time, so there’s a lot of picking to do.

“The majority of our harvest really is starting here in the next three to five days,” he said Thursday.

But even with an optimal summer, weather can still run amok for individual farms.

Over at Hoch Orchard and Gardens, farther west of La Crescent, owner Harry Hoch said his apple crop suffered from a severe hail storm midway through the summer, which damaged the apples and seemed to hasten their ripening.

“Everything seems to be ripening up ahead of schedule,” he said.

Hoch said 80 to 90 percent of the crop at the main orchard was damaged, so workers in the orchard’s kitchens are making lots more applesauce and cider varieties to make the best of the situation.

An orchard they rent closer to La Crescent was spared, so there are also plenty of apples for customers to purchase at the farm.

Hoch said while several other orchards in the area were also hit with the hail, many were spared.

“There’s still a lot of good apples in La Crescent,” he said.

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