COLUMBIA — The wind blew through the leaves at Peters Orchard, shaking the few leftover apples with each gust. “There shouldn’t be an apple around here,” said Paul Peters of the family-run, 500-acre orchard near Waverly. “We didn’t expect anything to make it.”
Peters expects a fall harvest of less than 10 percent of the usual 250,000 bushels his orchard raises each year. The Missouri apple industry took a hard hit from the historic “Easter freeze” in March. MU horticulture professor Michele Warmund said the early cold snap caused the most damage to the state’s fruit crops since the 1800s.
Now that the season is nearing its end, more accurate estimates of the damage are available. “In Missouri, 48 million pounds of apples were lost due to the Easter 2007 freeze,” Warmund said. “This translates to an estimated $10.8 million loss to Missouri growers.”
After a few weeks of warm weather in March, the apple trees began to bud and develop their crop. When temperatures dropped below freezing around Easter, the newly formed buds were damaged extensively.
Norman Rasa, owner and operator of Rasa Orchard near Lexington, estimated a 95 percent loss this year. His 180 acres of apple trees yielded 5,200 bushels compared with 140,000 to 150,000 bushel yields during favorable seasons.
Both Peters and Rasa would be in the middle of packing season, which usually runs from Aug. 15 through Nov. 15. This year, they’ve already finished packing their crops into boxes and bags.
Bags line white wooden shelving units in a large, open room at the middle of Peters Market, with samples of apple cider donuts, apple butters, pumpkins and jams. On average, the Peters Orchard would sellout and ship all of its apples by December. This year, the best Peters can hope for is to have apples through October.
The poor harvest has also affected those who seek out seasonal work in the orchards as well as some schools and businesses.
During a productive harvest, migrant workers from out of state, especially Florida and Texas, are hired to help pick the apples and pack the fruit for shipping. Peters said he usually hires about 150 migrant workers, and Rasa usually hires about 60. This year, Rasa only needed to hire two or three migrant workers and a few locals; Peters only hired 30 pickers and a few more packers at the height of the harvest.
“It should be a flurry of activity out here,” Peters said as he waved his hand toward the empty trails between rows of trees.
Waverly, Lexington and the surrounding area are part of an apple belt that parallels the Missouri River in west-central parts of the state. Driving down two-lane Highway 24, the landscape is a patchwork of trees, orchard entrances, open-air apple houses and small towns. Reaping the benefits of the river deposits, the tree roots stretch deep into the soil that helps create the fertile terrain.
The orchards are part of local economies — especially around harvest time when there’s a demand for extra hired help.
Douglas Wright is superintendent of the Santa Fe School District, which includes students from Alma, Blackburn, Waverly and Grand Pass. The relatively small school district, with 425 students, has an apple season “cycle” built into each school year. During the height of the apple harvest, Wright said, the children of migrant workers make up 10 percent of elementary school enrollment.
Wright’s district relies on state and federal funds earmarked for the education of children from migrant families. The district received $30,000 in “migrant funds” this year, Wright said, based on the number of migrant students who enrolled last year. In addition to the “migrant funds,” the school district receives basic state funding for standard student enrollment, which will be depleted because of low migrant enrollment.
With only three migrant children enrolled this fall, Wright is concerned the funds will not be available next year, when a typical harvest would bring migrant workers and their children back to his schools.
“This has impacted the school dramatically,” Wright said. “We are looking at $50,000 to $60,000 total less revenue next year.”
Phyllis Brewe is a one-woman show in the two-room metal building that houses her Bridge Street Market in Waverly, making the daily lunch specials and stocking the shelves and refrigerators.
During the apple-picking season, she purchases a number of supplies that the workers might not find elsewhere in town. She likes to have Hispanic foods, such as tortillas and bags of dried peppers, in bulk. She said her store is missing the business of migrant families.
In addition to local sales, Peters and Rasa’s orchards pack and ship to larger grocery stores and food chains, including Wal-Mart. “We couldn’t take care of those accounts this year,” Peters said.
Schreiman Orchards, a roadside market located two miles west of Waverly, did not produce apples this year, but it’s still selling apples from local orchards. The crisp white paint of the apple house along Highway 24 is dappled with hand-painted signs advertising a wide assortment of treats, including pickled okra, Alma bacon, Amish snacks and varieties of apples and apple goods.
Judy Schreiman Marshall said “this (time of season) would be the best time for selling apples,” but she has sold out of four of eight varieties: Jonathan, golden delicious, gala and Fuji.
Marshall is worried that some people might think there are no apples in the area and, therefore not make their annual fall trip to the orchards and apple houses.
“It’s hard to get the message out there that there are apples,” she said. “We do have apples.”
Regardless of the changes in sales and production, “Waverly apples are the best kept secret in Missouri” because so many people don’t realize how many apples and trees are raised here, Marshall said, noting that the flavor this year “is just as good as always.”
Some of the larger grocery store chains have felt the impact as well. Dave Guthrie, produce manager at Schnucks in Columbia, has been selling apples from Michigan this year because the orchards in Waverly were not able to provide an adequate supply. “We have not received any Missouri apples to sell this year,” he said.
Despite the shortage, Guthrie said he won’t increase apple prices for consumers. “We are not trying to stretch them by raising the price; we will just be out of them later,” he said.
Despite the scarcity of apples this season, Peters said area growers “feel fortunate to have what we got.” The apple industry is generally consistent, he said, noting that he hasn’t seen such a damaged apple crop since 1936. “I hope that I’m looking up out of my grave the next time this happens,” he said.