After six wet weekends, the apple farmers are hurting

In the lower section of an old barn at Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cut­ch­ogue, apple farmers store crates overflowing with apples in a cooler. On a fall morning last week, there were an estimated 1,100 bushels of apples in the cooler.

Normally at this time of year, apple farmers say there might be 300 bushels in cold storage. But this fall was not like those of previous years, with six weekends in a row of rain that kept the steady stream of apple pickers away from the Cut­ch­ogue farm and other North Fork farms selling their apples.

“There is a vast surplus of apples this year,” said Tom Wickham, as he and a visitor toured the farm in Mr. Wickham’s pickup truck. “The rains kept the apple pickers away, so we have a lot now in cold storage.”

While he said he is not certain yet of the financial fallout for apple farmers of the rainy weekends, he said it is possible this year the farm — which raises two dozen varieties of apples, from Mutsu to Empire to the crisp and juicy Rubyfrost — may see a loss. But Mr. Wickham’s optimism on his historic farm runs deep: the coming weekend was predicted to be classic fall weather, which brings out the apple pickers, sometimes by the busload.

“We will have a good weekend,” Mr. Wickham said.

Across New York State’s apple country, apple farmers have been hit hard by the rainy weekends, according to a recent story in The New York Times that focused on orchards in the Hudson River Valley. Some growers said weekend rains, one after another from September into October, cost them half of their autumn income. 

One Hudson Valley apple grower told The New York Times, “I’ve been farming since 1972, and this is the roughest fall I’ve ever seen.”

The Wickhams have been farming in Cut­ch­ogue considerably longer. Part of the family’s current farm dates to the mid-1850s; a previous line of Wickhams arrived in Cut­ch­ogue on a different tract of land in 1699.

Beginning in the late 1930s, and continuing into the 1940s and 1950s, the family began planting apple orchards, in part because potato farming on Long Island was beginning to disappear as suburbanization spread east. The family wanted new crops that would help them keep the farm active and business at their Main Road farm stand busy. In addition, New York State, through Cornell University, had an active apple research program that inspired new varieties, like the Empire — named after the Empire State — that farmers could then offer to the public.

This past weekend, many of the apple varieties grown on the Wickham farm were on display in the farm stand, along with pies and donuts. By Saturday morning, visitors began to arrive with the sunny promise of more apple pickers to come. For his part, Mr. Wickham mans a tractor that pulls pickers in a wagon to orchards on the east side of the farm ripe with apples.

Essentially, apple season comes at two different times on the Wickham farm: first, from late August into September; then from October — which is prime picking time — to the end of the season. Ten or 12 varieties are picked in the early season; another 10-12 in October. 

Some growers quoted in The New York Times story said they would try to extend the season into December in hopes of making up for fall losses. The Wickham farm stand traditionally closes before Christmas.

Historically, the farm’s apples are sold at the stand or by the U-pick crowd. That portion of the business has dropped off sharply in recent years due to worsening traffic conditions, with major chokepoints west of Cut­ch­ogue.

“People just can’t get east because of the traffic,” Mr. Wickham said.

Then the September-October weekend rains hit, making matters worse for apple farmers. “It’s been a dramatic drop-off,” he said. “The rain really hurt us.”

As Mr. Wickham toured the orchards with a visitor, he pointed out that some of the later varieties — such as Fuji and Rubyfrost — are still on the trees waiting on pickers to arrive. 

With his eye on the surplus, Mr. Wickham began looking for alternate markets for his apple crop. A major buyer this fall has been the Jericho Cider Mill in Nassau County. One day last week, Mr. Wickham drove one of the farm’s flatbed trucks packed with crates of barrels to the mill.

Another way of selling the surplus is to convert the apples to cider. On the day a visitor toured the farm, workers in another barn were processing apples and filling jugs with cider. The cider press on the farm dates to about 1907 and remains in use every fall.

In the lower section of the big barn, where potatoes were once stored, Mr. Wickham showed the visitor the cooler, where 1,100 bushels of apples are in cold storage in large wooden crates. He said he hoped many of them could be sold in the spring when the stand reopens.

Then his phone pinged. He was wanted at the stand to drive a group of pickers behind the tractor who had arrived to enjoy the sunny day.