Picking the year’s last apple

Sunday, October 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:23 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

With his dog, Toby, waiting patiently below, Jim Allen climbs his stepladder and pokes his fruit picker through the branches. It takes the entire reach of the 67-year-old’s arms plus the nine and a half feet of the bamboo pole to get near the remaining apples.

Allen has spent most of the day — his final day of this year’s harvest — picking apples in his Hartsburg orchard. He can feel it in his elbows and back. But he’s only taken two breaks, one for coffee and pie, and the other for lunch. That’s the only rest he’s needed. “I don’t work too fast or too hard,” he says.

Allen reaches for the Winesaps that hang in a cluster at the top of the tree. He swipes with his picker’s prongs and comes up short. He tries again and nudges the fruit. On the third attempt, a bright red apple snaps off the limb and falls into the picker’s padded basket.

Allen lowers the apple and examines it. This one has a blemish and is tossed into the cull bucket. “Sometimes they aren’t worth going after if they’re way up there,” he says. And after nearly 30 years of harvesting, he’d know.

The Hartsburg native originally planted the apple trees on his 17 acres as a hobby. “We had several kids, and it was nice to have fresh fruit around all the time for them,” he says. However, just two years after retiring from the floor-covering business, Allen wonders whether his hobby has become a little out of hand.

He has almost 40 trees and is harvesting through most of the summer and fall seasons. Besides six kinds of apples, Allen grows cherries, apricots, plums, peaches and pears.

He sells some of his produce but ends up giving most of it away. “I just try to get my money back for my equipment and spray,” he says.

On this day, Allen harvests 11 bushels of apples. He repositions his ladder and makes his way up the steps for what is one of his last ascents of the year.

With just his legs visible beneath the branches, Allen weaves his picker through the branches one more time.

After about 30 seconds, faithful Toby is startled to his feet as an apple lands with a thud. This is what Allen’s dog waits for — a snack that drops from the heavens. The springer spaniel mix wanders over to investigate, but Allen knows this fruit is safe. “He only likes the sweet ones,” he says.

Once the last apple has been collected, Allen loads his bushels, picker and ladder into a trailer behind his John Deere lawnmower and heads down the hill to the shed. Stooped slightly over the wheel, he looks left and right at the now-empty trees.

Minutes later, he stands over a final day’s work. Polishing an apple with a bit of dingy cloth, Allen is satisfied.

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