People who depend on orchards for a living are an optimistic and determined lot. Always at the mercy of weather, insects, animals and diseases, Kansas fruit farmers have a precarious existence at best.
Becoming a fruit farmer is not something you can do just on a whim. I once thought that a mature fruit tree was pretty much a finished product, that all you had to do was kick back and wait for the bounty to ripen. I was wrong.
When I have toured orchards since, I have been struck by the amount of pruning, thinning and other fussing that fruit trees require and how vulnerable the trees are to frost, drought, deer and nasty little flies and worms. Nor is harvesting just a matter of shaking the tree and watching the fruit drop into waiting boxes.
Most apple growers pick by hand, or with extensions, from a hoist on the back of a tractor. They then sort the fruit in a barn or other shaded area, sometimes with automated equipment.
For all these reasons, tending an orchard of mature fruit trees requires a significant investment in specialized equipment and supplies.
Given the trials that go into producing a crop of any tree-grown fruit, it seems obvious that fruit farmers must get an immense feeling of satisfaction when they bring in a good harvest. Surely, the financial rewards alone aren't enough.
Every fall when the local apples come to market, I view it as a real achievement, as some grower's labor of love. As I slice a locally grown apple for a pie, I never know whether the farmer spent a sleepless night fretting over a late spring frost or how much effort he or she expended to protect that apple from coddling moths, apple maggots and scab.
But the fact that locally grown apples arrive every autumn is evidence that the farmer did all that and more.
According to the Kansas Fruit Growers Assn., four varieties account for about three-fourths of the apples grown in Kansas: Jonathan, a mildly tart, versatile apple that is the standard for pie-baking; Delicious, the sweetest on the list; Golden Delicious, an eating and baking apple; and Winesap, the tartest of the four and a long keeper.
Although Jonathan is the most popular pie apple, others work well for baking, too. The association's list also includes Empire, Rome Beauty, Jonagold, Idared and Golden Delicious.
Another acceptable baking apple, Lodi, can be picked in midsummer, but most varieties are harvested in late August and September. Those that will come to market first are Gala, Prima, Paulared, Ozark Gold and Jonathan. In September and October, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Empire Delicious and Idared will ripen. Winesap and Granny Smith are the stragglers and may not be ready for harvest until November.
Depending on the variety and storage conditions, apples will keep up to a year. A temperature just above freezing and humidity of 90 percent create optimal conditions for stored apples.
Although apple harvests are on a different timetable in other climates, apples that are sold year-round in your supermarket generally are harvested in summer and fall, and stored. To enjoy the freshest apples, you need to buy them in the fall and use them within a couple of months.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University.