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Archive for Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Area orchards offer consumers pick of crop

September 11, 2002

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For folks who grow apples for a living in the Lawrence area, life is no bowl of cherries.

It takes an awful lot of hard work to produce a big, juicy Jonathan or Red Delicious apple, and often it seems like Mother Nature herself is conspiring against you.

There's early frost to contend with, nasty hailstorms that can batter your crops and extended periods of heat to endure.

Not to mention the dry times  if not drought conditions  like the region is experiencing now.

It all takes a toll on the apples.

"In 2000, we lost probably 75 to 80 percent of our crop due to the heat. The apples literally baked on the trees, or they dropped off. Last year we were hit by a hailstorm June 1. We had 18 inches of hail stacked up. We really got hammered," said Laurie Walters of the 120-acre Wildhorse Orchard near McLouth.

She and her husband, Perry, planted their first apple trees in 1981. They now have about 1,000 trees that produce 14 different varieties of apples.

Laurie Walters has been a fixture on Saturday mornings at the Lawrence Farmers Market, in the 1000 block of Vermont Street, since 1986.

"This year it's hot and dry. As hot as it's been, the trees literally shut down  they'll drop fruit. We irrigate, but we're at the point where we really need some rain to go with it. If the temperature goes up to 100 degrees again, we'll have another (year) 2000 on our hands," she said.

Aside from facing bad weather, orchard owners have to put in plenty of time and effort to transform just the right amount of sunshine, rain and soil into a crisp, tasty piece of fruit.

"We literally start pruning in January and hope to be done with it in late March. Then it becomes monitoring the crop for insects and diseases, keeping the undergrowth controlled. Then we start harvesting, and I open up the farm (market) in July, selling apples until late November," Walters said.

"That gives us December to kind of catch our breath. It keeps us busy for 11 months of the year. I gave up my job (as a pharmacist) because the orchard demanded so much time."

Eldon Bailey can sympathize.

He and his wife, Jan, own Jan's Produce, a 10-acre farm and orchard located eight miles northeast of Lawrence.

The Baileys know what it's like to devote themselves to both tilling the soil to grow vegetables and caring for about 40 fruit trees.

"There's the pruning of the apple trees in late winter or early spring. It's just time consuming  you have an awful lot of pruning to do. That helps with the thinning process so you don't have a problem with overloaded trees," Eldon Bailey said.

"Between the two  raising the vegetables and the fruit  we work seven months without a single day off. The two of them together keep us busy."

When you're growing a crop of apples, there's not just lots of physical labor involved. There's worry and sleepless nights, too.

"The hardest part is the frustration, the things over which you have no control  our heat, our drought. As dry as we are, you can't provide enough water. And the hail. There's frustrations and setbacks. There's always something to learn," Walters said.

But there are rewards.

"When you have a gorgeous, beautiful crop out there on a fall morning, it's overwhelming. When the trees are all laden in fruit, they're just like ladies in ball gowns. An apple tree that's fully loaded  that's something to see," she said.

Bailey might not be as poetic in describing the way he views a big, healthy crop of apples. But it's a sight he appreciates, nonetheless.

"You can look at it and see dollars if you want to. You can look at it and see a bunch of pretty red apples, too," he said.

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