The northeastern U.S. state of New York is well known for its majestic Niagara Falls, and for the incomparable city of New York, often called the Big Apple. The Empire State is also famous for another kind of apple — the edible kind.
More than 700 commercial orchard farmers grow apples in New York, directly employing over 10,000 people. And, unlike many of today's commercial crops, which are produced and marketed by large corporations, most New York State apples are grown on moderately-sized family-owned farms. The Red Jacket Orchards in New York State's scenic Finger Lakes Region is a typical case in point.
At high noon on a hot, humid day, Mark Nicholson takes a moment to enjoy a midday breeze blowing through the 240 hectares of his family's cropland. Nicholson says the moderate climate of the Finger Lakes region is perfect for growing apples, grapes, and other fruits.
"We can alleviate some of the low winter temperatures as well as some of the spring frost conditions. This area is also recognized for very fertile soils that we believe provide an excellent flavor profile to the fruit."The orchard grows a wide range of popular apple varieties — all with Yankee-sounding names, such as "Empire," "Macintosh," "Red Delicious," Golden Delicious," "Northern Spy," "Macoun" and "Cortland."
"Sweet, tart, or crunchy, everybody seems to have his own preference," says Nicholson, who adds that he loves almost every kind there is. So did Mark's grandfather, who sold his turkey farm on Long Island nearly a half century ago, and bought the Red Jacket Orchard.
"My father followed my grandfather's steps and took it from a smaller roadside operation to a larger wholesale operation," says Nicholson. "And now my twin brother and my sister are challenged with taking it even further than that," he proudly adds.
Agricultural science is more sophisticated than in Mark's grandfather's day. Excellent new pesticides help ward off fire blight, apple scab and other threats as they evolve.
Today's apple trees are kept smaller than they used to be — only about 2.5 meters high and 2.5 meters wide, on average. These "dwarf" trees yield more apples than the tall ones did, and because light doesn't have to struggle past the high branches, the sugars in the plant concentrate more in the fruit, which improves its flavor.
Nicholson stoops down to pick up his orchard ladder. Pruning the trees back and thinning them out is constant work that Mark's grandfather hired mostly Americans to do. Today, Nicholson says, "there isn't an adequate domestic labor force available and willing to do this type of work."
Instead, the orchard relies on migrant workers, most of them from Mexico. Nicholson gestures toward a group of workers thinning the branches of some nearby apple trees. "These guys were in at six this morning and are in until five at night. And they do it six days a week, and they do it in the sun, the rain, and heat and the cold."
Without those workers, Nicholson says, "we wouldn't be the size we are now and wouldn't necessarily be in business in the future."
Nicholson says that while this year has been somewhat dry, he expects a decent apple harvest this fall — unless Nature has other plans. To minimize its market risk, Red Jacket has diversified its product line. Only half of its cropland is now devoted to growing apples. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, apricots and sweet and sour cherries now grow on other parts of the farm.
A large portion of a farm's income can be spent paying other companies to process, package and ship produce. Nicholson's farm has the infrastructure to do all that work right on his own land. Red Jacket has also exploited the soaring popularity of fresh squeezed fruit juices, which are seen as a healthier alternative to sodas and other sugar-based drinks.
Standing in his noisy juice processing room, Mark Nicholson allows himself a moment's pride as he watches three metric tons of apples being dumped into a presser. Afterward, the juice will be pasteurized and combined with strawberry nectar — also from his farm — before it is bottled and shipped off for delivery downstate in refrigerated trucks. All too soon, Nicholson is back to work, keeping his farm competitive, manageable — and in the family.