By Erin Place
WEST PARIS—While Chris Cooper, owner of Cooper Farms in West Paris, wouldn’t call this year’s apple season a bumper crop, he’s bringing in more fruit than last year, despite hail during the summer that damaged some of his trees.
According to a release from the United States Department of Agriculture, Maine is the only New England state with an apple forecast expected to surpass last year’s crop. Maine’s projected numbers are at 40 million pounds of apples, which is up 48-percent from 2013. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are all predicted to see significant decreases in their harvests, while Rhode Island’s crop is expected to hold the line.
In West Paris, things are going so well with the apple crop this year that Cooper is considering hiring on more pickers to help bring in the fruit on his roughly 400 acres before the snow flies.
“It’s going to be tough to get everything in by then,” he said, noting it’s mostly because of the amount of fruit still ripening on the trees.
Cooper Farms Stand is located at 26 Bethel Road, or Route 26—where apples, other produce, baked goods and meat are sold—but he has orchards located on his farm about a mile-and-a-half from the stand, a spot in Buckfield, two farms in Hartford and, new this year, he’s leasing an 50-acre orchard from the Shakers in New Glouster.
Cooper called the 2014 season “a fair crop” and estimates his crew will pick more than 100,000 bushels of apples by the season’s end, adding that it all depends on the weather. The Maine apple season runs from the end of August until the end of October, he said. The one thing he is sure about is the amount of fruit harvested so far this year.
“I’ve actually got more Macintosh this year than last year, more Cortlands, less honeycrisps because of the hail … but I’ve got more honeycrisps total,” Cooper said, estimating that he has roughly 100 acres of honeycrisps planted this season. “We planted probably more than anyone in Maine right now and probably more than anyone New England, actually.”
His reasoning behind this is that honeycrisps are an extremely popular apple, and are also a high-quality and high-priced fruit.
A significant hail storm struck in July and hit some blocks of apple trees when the fruit was small and near the beginning stages of development. According to Cooper, the weather damaged the cells of the apples and the deterioration of the plant can show up later in the forms of dents or cuts. One section of his 80-acre orchard on his farm in West Paris was completely totaled and said some apples had 10 to 15 hits on each piece of fruit from the hail. He estimates that around 20-percent of fruit that was lost was because of the hail, but said that it could end up being much more.
“It all depends on how open the tree is. Smaller trees get hit worse. … Every apple is kind of exposed,” Cooper said. “We still have a lot of apples, even without those.”
The season is running late this year, he said. For his Macintosh apples, most did not bloom until June 1 and it’s 120 days from the first bloom until they’re supposed to be harvested.
“It’s good because they’re coloring ahead of maturity. Some years they color behind maturity, then you lose them on the ground a lot,” Cooper said, noting ground apples can be turned into juice and cider, but do not garner as much money. “The frost will make them ripen sooner, too. It’s good to have a little bit of frost.”
For next season, he plans on reinstating a cider mill on-site at the farm stand. It was removed approximately 12 years ago to make way for a bakery, but Cooper hasn’t been satisfied with the turnaround and quality of the cider he’s purchased to sell at the stand, even though some of it is produced from his apples. He hasn’t decided yet if he will go the old school apple press route or purchase something more modern, but he does plan on erecting a new building on the north side of the farm stand.
While Cooper sells some of his apples at his farm stand and to local farmers, the majority of his business is done through supermarket chains. His biggest customer is Publix, which has stores throughout the Southeast and is based in Florida. He also sells his produce to Shaw’s and Hannaford.
Late Monday morning, a group of women were working behind the farm stand, stickering and packaging apples, most headed to Publix in the sunshine state. Cooper shows his original apple sorting machine, which can hold 20 bushels of apples, and soaks them and runs them through the water, where they’re next brushed off. It automatically takes out smaller apples that will be used to create cider and apple juice, and sends the bigger ones on to the dryer. The add on to the original sorting machine—which cost roughly $150,000 a few years ago—takes a photo of each piece of fruit and sorts it by size, sending it to the appropriate chute. It can even sort the apples by color, he said.
But business has been pretty good and Cooper is considering purchasing a state-of-the-art apple sorter with a price tag hovering around a half million dollars for next season. It would take some of the pressure off the ladies packing and stickering the apples, who are also in charge of making sure no bad apples get shipped out to the supermarkets.
Also out back are the storage containers where apples that aren’t slated for the supermarkets are stored. The farm stand stays open year-round, selling apples, meat, milk, eggs and honey, along with its baked goods.
“Apples are good for you,” Cooper said. “We still sell quite a bit of apples every day [in the winter].”