TERRE HAUTE —
Jars of preserves line the shelves and cider sits nearby, but apples themselves seem to be in short supply this autumn.
Workers were busy inside Ditzler Orchard’s country store Saturday, where ornamental pumpkins and gourds were displayed for sale. And while apples are available, the double-whammy dished out by Mother Nature this season has slashed the harvest by about two-thirds, closing other orchards early.
Judi Ditzler said the family’s 12-acre orchard of 2,000 trees typically yields 2,500 to 3,000 bushels of apples — 4,000 or more in an outstanding year. This year, she figures they’ll get about 800 bushels. Berry production at her nearby Cherrywood Farm has likewise been impacted.
The answering machines of Vigo County’s Swanee Orchard and Clay County’s West Orchard alike inform callers that business is done early for the year.
When asked about the profitability of owning an orchard, Mauri Ditzler paused, then laughed, “It’s fun.”
In all fairness, the fruit never stood a chance.
Walking about the 22-acre compound, Judi explained the various ingredients that were baked into a recipe that has yielded apples lost.
An unseasonably warm March induced the trees to bloom weeks early, only to be blasted with two nights of 26-degree temperatures on April 9 and 10. Nearly 90 percent of the apple blossoms died as a result, she said. And while orchards typically prune back a number of early blossoms anyway, April’s freeze set the stage for shortage.
“And then we had drought for two months or more,” she said, noting the drought itself wasn’t nearly as problematic as the freeze, but it did compound matters. The disappointment was considerable given the warm March, as the Ditzlers believed it would lead to a bumper crop. “The freeze was the main problem. The freeze we’re still dealing with, the drought not so much.”
In the big picture, the trees themselves were saved by rains in late August and September, she said. But this year’s apple crop already had been determined by that point. Pointing to a Fuji apple tree near the orchard’s north end, she explained how its clustering demonstrates the problem.
“Look at this tree, it looks like someone picked the bottom,” she said.
The tree, some 15 feet tall, contained no apples below 5 feet. As the air nearer the ground remains colder longer, it was the lower blossoms that stewed in the cold while those up top began receiving warmer air first. And even the blossoms that survived to produce fruit up top were in fewer numbers.
“That one doesn’t have three bushels on it right now,” she said, estimating a normal yield would be six to seven, with 10 in an outstanding year.
Ditzler Orchard had planned to offer u-pick days this fall, but with the lowest levels bare, that option isn’t available, she said.
Back inside the orchard’s walk-in freezer, Judi showed the “scars” left on fruit as a result of the freeze. Ringed by a dark circle, she explained the marking is from those two nights in April. Some of the apples failed to develop seeds and others are slightly misshapen. This summer’s record-breaking temperatures also impacted some of the fruit, she said, explaining the heat was more damaging than lack of rain.
“There’s nothing wrong with that apple, but it’s hard to sell it on the shelf,” she said with a scarred fruit in hand. About half of this year’s harvest will be turned into cider.
To provide apples to long-time wholesale customers, Judi said she’s buying apples from another family orchard in Illinois.
“It’s a difficult year,” she said. “This is only the second time in the history of the orchard we have had to buy apples.”
Ditzler Orchard is a family affair. In 1971, Mauri’s father, Gale, planted the first few trees on the property outside Rosedale. Those trees began bearing fruit within six or seven years, Judi said, describing the business’ beginnings as very humble.
“It started off very small, very mom-and-pop,” she said. Mauri’s mother, Patricia, still holds title to the land.
Mauri said his father retired from the insurance business before beginning the orchard. His brother, John, took over the operation after their father’s death and ran it until this February before retiring.
“Orchards are good retirement hobbies, they’re not good jobs,” he chuckled.
Mauri serves as president of Monmouth College in Illinois, located a few miles east of the Iowa border. Judi owns and operates nearby Cherrywood Farm, which offers u-pick berries, preserves and a variety of ciders. Upon John’s retirement, she brought Ditzler Orchard under management of Cherrywood Farm to keep it in the family.
“It’s just a hobby for me,” Mauri said. “It’s a job for Judi.”
Not many people can make a living growing fruit in the Midwest, he said. But he enjoys mowing the pastures and working the grounds.
“I planted a lot of these trees. It’s fun to see them again,” he explained.
Israel Ditzler, Mauri’s nephew, helps manage the property he’s worked every summer since a child. Now 28, the Goshen College graduate with a degree in computer science said he enjoys the property but doubts he’ll take it over as a full-time job.
“Long term, I’m still figuring it out,” he said.
Mauri said his own children are grown and have moved out of the area. His son works for NASA, one daughter owns a maple syrup farm in Vermont, and another daughter is an urban planner.
“I don’t think so,” he said of their prospects as future orchard owners.
In the meantime, cider and preserves are available for purchase, and the Ditzlers, like other orchard owners, hope for a kinder season next year.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freeze, then drought at core of crop’s problems
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