For orchards, apple season lasts all year

Pepin Heights Orchard works year-round to grow University-developed apples.

by Julia Marshall

As fall draws to a close, so does the apple harvesting season at Pepin Heights Orchards.

In early November, Dennis Courtier can be found packing up apples at his Lake City, Minn., orchard and getting them ready to ship throughout the Midwest.

Pepin Heights Orchards and many others across the state depend every fall on apple varieties developed at the University of Minnesota, their busiest time of the year. But for orchards, apple season never really ends.

In spring, orchard workers bring in bees to pollinate the apple tree blossoms. During winter, crews prune the trees daily.

“Any day that it’s above zero, we’ll be out pruning,” said Courtier, Pepin Heights’ owner and president.

But in fall, he said workers at Pepin Heights busy themselves determining which of the orchard’s 50 to 100 different apple varieties will sell best.

“It sounds so simple and straightforward. But at the end of the day, we never forget that apples are food,” Courtier said. “They have to taste good, and they have to have great texture, and it’s got to be a variety that we think is significantly better than something else that’s out there on the market now.”

Different apple varieties ripen at different times in the harvest season, which starts around the end of August and ends by November.

Courtier said workers keep busy because new varieties ripen throughout the season. At Pepin Heights, harvesters take their time and attend to details like clipping the stems out of each apple, he said.

The harvested apples are stored until they are sent to grocery stores. At some orchards, apples are typically picked and packed up for shipping in less than two weeks, Courtier said.

Pepin Heights is a large orchard by Minnesota standards but is average to small on a national scale.

“We grow more apples than any other orchard in the state by quite a chunk,” he said. “But by Midwestern standards, we’re just sort of average size. By Washington state standards, we’re really quite small.”

Pepin Heights grows and sells seven apple varieties. Five of them were developed at the University, including the popular Honeycrisp.

University apple breeder David Bedford said Honeycrisp apples have a home-state advantage in Minnesota because they were specifically developed by researchers to grow well in colder climates.

Bedford said the older apple varieties researchers used to create Honeycrisp offered new tastes for consumers.

“There were some wonderful genes for texture and flavor that [other apples] didn’t have,” Bedford said.

University researchers first developed Honeycrisp apples in 1960, and they’ve since become one of the most sought-after varieties in the industry.

James Luby, a University horticultural science professor and apple researcher, said it’s rare to create an apple as popular as the Honeycrisp.

“Seldom do really blockbuster apples come around like Honeycrisp,” Luby said, “but if you’re fortunate, you may get one in your lifetime.