CONCORD, N.H. >> Unlike last year's bumper crop for apples in New England, this year's batch is a bit smaller for many farmers as they struggle with abnormally dry and drought conditions.
There are still enough apples to go around at most pick-your-own operations, some of which opened this holiday weekend. But some farms are not offering that this year and are taking their apples directly to market. Even before the dry weather, higher-than-normal temperatures in February and March, followed by a cold spell in April, challenged the crop.
Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire's Commissioner of Agriculture, said fruit and vegetable growers have the capability to irrigate their crops and have kept a steady supply.
Farmers in northern New England have fared better than those in the southern part of the region, because they received more rain.
"By the grace of God, we still have a nice crop out there," said Dan Hicks, owner of Sunnycrest Farm in Londonderry, New Hampshire, which opened its pick-your-own operation this weekend. The farm is located in an extreme-drought area of the state.
In southern Maine, the Giles Family Orchard in Alfred opened this weekend with early varieties. Overall, the size of the crop and the size of the apples are good, so everything looks great, said Frank Boucher, one of the owners.
But knock on wood, he said.
"We never count our blessings until they're all inside the building, because a hurricane or heavy wind could come along. Mother Nature can throw anything at us between now and October," he said.
In Brentwood, New Hampshire, Laurie Lossigian, who runs Apple Annie's Orchard with her husband, said the early warmth this year followed by the April cold caused some damage. "We can't do pick-your-own because apples we have are higher in the trees, so the frost took more of the lower apples."
In Vermont, Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Tree Growers Association, estimated the state's crop will be down about 15 percent from last year's bumper crop, but it's still a little early.
The hot weather may be causing some apples to drop off trees early, said Greg Burtt, who with his wife owns Burtt's Apple Orchard in Cabot, Vermont. The 10-acre pick-your-own orchard has gotten plenty of rain and some early varieties are ready for picking, he said.
"They're growing pretty big for us," he said of the apples.
The dry weather has affected Massachusetts and Rhode Island, too. In Rhode Island, apples are available a bit earlier than in previous years. Jon Clements, a fruit specialist at the UMass Extension, expects the Massachusetts crop to be about 15 to 20 percent below average. He said that's not necessarily a bad thing, because in years when Massachusetts orchards overproduce, they are sometimes left with an excess of apples that they can't sell.
George Krivda of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture said "it's not scientific," but people feel when the apples are a little smaller, "they become more flavorful" because the fruit becomes more concentrated.
He noted that Connecticut was affected differently by drought conditions. The northern part of the state experienced very little rain deficit, compared to the southern part of the state.
"Each orchard could tell its own story based on its own micro-climate," he said. "It's case-by-case. There is no black and white, universal answer."