By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

In his 90-acre orchard on Chase Road in Lunenburg, Jerry Lanni can see many apple trees standing about 4-feet shorter than they did just a few months ago.

Branches are bowing, thanks to the weight of the plentiful fruit growing on them, looking like sleigh bells on sticks. It's a sign of the abundant apple season this year, and testament to Mother Nature's trick that always seems to bring a bumper crop the year after a devastating season.

The first sign of luck for orchard farmers this year came with the apple blossoming in early May, said Franklyn Carlson, co-owner of Carlson Orchards on Oak Hill Road in Harvard. Last year, trees had begun to bloom as early as at the end of March and the beginning of April only to become frozen as temperatures plummeted following a series of warm days. But this year was a lot more "normal," Carlson said.

Heavy rain in June had farmers across Massachusetts concerned that it could ruin the fruit that had just begun to grow. The heat waves of summer also took color out of some apples, Carlson said. But in the end, trees became laden with fruit everywhere just in time for the arrival of the apple-picking season.

"We fight the weather all year long. It's a tough business," said Lanni, owner of Lanni Orchards. But "we definitely have plenty of crop this year. I can't complain," he said, smiling widely.

Apple orchards across Northeast are reporting a stellar season. Carlson Farm, a 75-year-old farm with 10,000 apple trees on 140 acres, is expecting up to 35,000 bushels of crop -- up from 20,000 bushels last year, which was about two-thirds of its normal crop -- by the time harvesting is complete in October.

Lanni also projects "higher than normal" crop. That's a big turnaround from last year when he lost 30 to 40 percent of apples to the unusual weather patterns.

Farmers had thought that this year might be a good one. That's because it takes apple trees two growing seasons to bear each fruit. Take a close look at tree branches, Carlson said. You can see new buds already burgeoning there, often right next to the existing apples on trees, although the buds won't flower until next spring.

When bad weather leaves little fruit for trees to feed, the plants use the extra energy to nourish the buds that will mature the following year, resulting in a bigger crop, Lanni said.

Apple flowers turn into apple fruit. So, when flowers froze due to the frost last year, trees were bound to have fewer apples to harvest in fall. Freezing temperatures hit orchards all along the East Coast from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, and one orchard in the Granite State he knows lost all apples, Lanni said. That's a difficult financial loss for any orchard to recover from, as crop insurance tends to cover just the cost of operation only up to that point, according to Lanni.

Because of that, apple orchard owners hold their breath when temperatures start to climb in the spring. Apple trees start blooming around May 10 in the Nashoba Valley region, according to Carlson. And, the closer to the date the blossoming happens, the better the outcome would be.

This year, trees bloomed in May but it was still slightly earlier than usual. Carlson said trees are blooming earlier and earlier -- a trend he and his brothers who co-own the orchard started to see a few years ago.

"Definitely, something is changing," said Carlson, who suspects the trend may stem from global climate change.

Lanni said the temperatures briefly climbed to 80 degrees this past January and he saw garlic plants sprouting from the ground.

To avoid financial devastation from weather changes, farmers try to diversify. It's one reason Lanni Orchards grow various fruits from raspberries to Concord grapes and all kinds of vegetables on the 290 acres it has in Lunenburg, Fitchburg and Hollis, N.H.

Apples tend to cost a little bit more for consumers when picking their own than buying from farm stands. That's because many people do not realize buds for the following year's crop are already growing and often snap buds away along with apples, reducing the amount of potential crop down the road, Carlson said.

Nonetheless, many orchards gladly open up their farms to the public for financial reasons. It generates an instant cash flow after seeing no revenue for months on an end while waiting for apples to grow, Carlson said. Crops to be kept in cold storage only generate revenue when sold in winter and spring.

"All the money is hanging on the trees right now. Nothing is coming in," Carlson said.

Spraying of chemicals also costs a lot of money. Long gone are days when farmers generously and frequently sprayed. Nowadays, spray chemicals cost so much -- which is more than $60,000 for Carlson and $150,000 for Lanni -- that farmers apply the bare minimum amount only to regret it later when insect and fungus problems arise, Carlson said.

Carlson Orchards, for one, uses a method called integrated pest management, or IPM, which minimizes spraying through constant monitoring of insects and the health of the plants.

Securing a reliable workforce for harvesting can also be an issue for orchard owners. Lanni Orchards has 30 migrant workers from Jamaica working on the farm currently. Some farmers say local hires often disappear after one hour into picking produce under the scorching sun.

But despite all the changes in the weather patterns and economy, the crop tastes as sweet as ever.

Lanni grows 14 different varieties and Carlson 21 varieties, including relatively new, popular ones such as Honeycrisp, which was developed by the University of Minnesota and released in the early 1990s. Lanni said his favorite apple hasn't changed since he was a child growing up on the farm that his grandfather opened in 1963.

"The world is hyped up on Honeycrisp, but I'm still partial to Macoun," Lanni said.

Follow Hiroko Sato on Twitter and tout @SatoLowellSun.