One of Northern Ireland’s flagship rural industries is facing a crisis.
Fruit growers fear the eagerly awaited Armagh apple harvest this autumn could yield as little as half its usual bounty following the worst year for the crop on record.
Apple farmers have been hard hit by a catalogue of weather disasters — from sustained late frosts and hailstones in April, to low pollination levels, to month after month of torrential rain.
It is feared that the poor crop could cost local farmers millions of pounds in lost revenue.
The Armagh apple industry employs up to 1,500 people and is worth £50m a year to the local economy.
Many farmers are reporting their crops are expected to be well down when harvest comes in three weeks’ time.
Dermot Morgan, of Morgan Brothers, said this has been the worst growing year anyone can remember.
He estimates Co Armagh’s apple crop will be halved.
“It’s around 5,000 acres and 200 growers and the average crop would be somewhere around 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes on average. We’ll be down to approximately half that,” he said.
His brother Terry said trees as old as 70 years have perished in the disastrous weather conditions.
“We’ve older trees of 70 years and some of them have died, as well as trees that had only been planted a few years. It affects all ages of tree. If you have to replace a young orchard it costs around £10,000 per acre, so the cost of replacement is high.”
Meanwhile, Philip Troughton of the Armagh Cider Company estimates the county’s full Bramley crop to be around 35,000 tonnes in normal years.
“This year they will be lucky to get 20,000 tonnes,” he said.
“I’m probably looking at a crop of somewhere between 50 and 60% of a full crop. It’s been a very poor year with a lot of diseases. It’s just been hardship.
“I am going to lose money. The price we received for the goods never makes up for the shortages in a part-crop. I can never make money out of a part-crop.”
Bernard Fearon, of Orchard Fresh Foods, said it looks as if his harvest will drop to 40% or 50% of its normal yield this September.
“First of all there was frost at Easter time for 10-14 nights, so the frost seemed to do a lot of harm,” he said.
“Then the rain started to come and the second blossom didn’t really materialise — it was just not there. Then the apples weren’t growing.” He said he noticed the trees were starting to die due to the sheer extent of the waterlogged conditions.
“I was finding that patches are dying out,” he explained.
“It’s going to be hard to even grow apples at all. It has just been constant. The water table is so high that it just takes a shower of rain and you’re back to square one.
“It’s also expensive to spray for disease. Scab has been prevalent this year and it’s more expensive to treat.
“I will just have to try to source apples in England to fill the void. Hopefully, we will be able to scrape through.”
Andrew Glass, of Glass Brothers, said about 10% of his apples have been left pockmarked by hailstones that raked the orchards back in April.
“March was very, very good and April came in cold with an easterly wind for about six weeks. The blossom came out in May and the weather continued to be cold. We’ve had dull wet weather right up to today,” he said.
“The crop will definitely be down — it’s safe to say it’s 50%.
“In some areas it’s been more, in others it’s been less, but that’s about the average.
“There will be a lot less money in the industry. It’s not been good growing conditions.
“The bees were out at the appropriate time for pollination but they didn’t get the weather either, because bees need a certain temperature to go out to work.
“Some people had to put out food for the bees because they didn’t have enough energy to feed and work,” said Mr Glass.
“The harvest is in three weeks’ time and I will be optimistic that good weather will come. There is bound to be no rain left — it can’t keep raining every day.”
Location and rich soil produces a blossoming trade that employs 1,500
It is our northerly location that produces such a rich flavour and a firmer, denser fruit in the Armagh Bramley apple — despite the lower yield.
Farmers credit a rich, fertile soil that is high in calcium and other nutrients combined with a pure and abundant water supply — but this summer, the water supply was rather too abundant.
Thanks to their denser texture, Armagh Bramleys can be stored for much longer than other cooking apples (12-13 months) and hold their flavour and texture when cooked.
The colder climate means fewer insects and less insecticide use. Meanwhile, the lower temperatures mean there is a longer growing season and with the cooler climate this results in a larger, firmer Bramley apple with less uniformity of shape and a stronger distinctive flavour.
Apples have been grown in Armagh for thousands of years and it’s said that St Patrick planted an apple tree at Ceangoba, an ancient settlement east of the city of Armagh.
The Bramley was first brought to Armagh in 1884 when Mr Nicholson bought 60 Bramley seedlings from Henry Merryweather.
By 1921, 7,000 acres had been planted and Bramley had become the principal variety in the county.
The £50m a year Armagh apple industry employs up to 1,500 local people. Apple blossom tours are held in May when the flower turn the hills and stately homes into a sea of pink, part of the Apple Blossom Festival.
Meanwhile, there are some customs associated with the apple — a wet St Swithin’s Day means a bumper harvest is on the way; a toast is drunk to the trees under the best bearing tree; and if there is a tree bearing both fruit and flower at exactly the same time, it is said that there will be a death in the family before the next harvest.
Growers counting the cost as Mother Nature turns sour
By Linda Stewart
Apple farmer Andrew Glass pointed out the distinctive pock marks dotting the surface of some of the Bramley apples growing in his orchard. “You’d think they were hit by a shotgun,” he said.
Meanwhile, his neighbour Dermot Morgan noted the very same phenomenon — as well as shredded leaves surrounding the apples. The culprit was a shower of hailstones back in April.
“You can still use them for some things, but once the hail came now there was no recovery,” he said.
It’s not the only sign of something amiss in the orchards of Armagh.
Dermot and his brother Terry pointed out the casualties of what has been a disastrous growing season — smaller apples than normal, limp, yellowing leaves, even dead trees.
Many of the trees in this orchard were gnarled, shady old veterans that have been growing there for as long as 80 years. Some had been reduced to heaps of firewood after they lost the battle with the elements.
First there was a warm spell in March, but it soon gave way to a run of 18 frosty nights which killed off the apple blossom, mixed with some bad hail showers. Then came the rains — and they never left. The bees couldn’t pollinate the apple blossom and the crop didn’t grow. Not only were farmers faced with a smaller crop than usual, but the apples were smaller in size. In the wet conditions diseases such as scab were rife and cost more to spray. Now farmers are pinning their hopes on a last burst of sunshine in the three weeks before the harvest starts in earnest.
The Morgan brothers showed how many of the trees were struggling to survive in the waterlogged soil, with leaves turning yellow.
A leaf is essentially a tiny factory for turning sunlight into apples and if they are showing signs of damage they can’t do their job properly.
“They can’t breathe, they can’t take in air and the roots can’t take up nutrients from the soil, such as potash and nitrogen,” Dermot explained.
“The vigour starts to go out of the tree because it can’t get the nutrients and it starts to go yellow because it can’t get potash.”
Once a tree begins to lose vigour in this way, it becomes vulnerable to frost and the brothers fear that many of those showing signs of yellowing this year will be dead next summer.
Meanwhile, pollination rates were badly hit because the weather was so bad for bees.
While they realised how bad the weather was going to be, the Morgan brothers simply didn’t bother to bring in hives.
“The bees didn’t have good weather for working either.
“We just took in a box of bumblebees because they are good for working in a cold climate,” Dermot said.
“1985 was bad but this is the worst year that anyone can remember. With high amounts of rainfall in a short period of time, it would be the worst season we’ve had.”
Meanwhile, Philip Troughton of the Armagh Cider Company believes he will harvest 50-60% of a full crop — and whatever happens now, he will lose money.
“It’s been a very poor year and lots of disease — it’s just been hardship,” he said.
“We are going to lose money. With a part-crop, the price we receive for the goods never make up for the shortages in the crop. I can never make money out of a part-crop.
“A fruit grower will always fear frost but this year it wasn’t so much frost as inclement weather. It was cool and there was no insect pollination being done.
“You can always tell at blossom time if it’s going to be a good crop because the blossom goes over in a week. The blossom was on the trees for a full month. For a whole month it tried to pollinate and didn’t.
“If you look at the trees, one side is ripe and the other side has nothing.
“The funny thing about it is that it is probably the less well maintained orchards that have the best crop, because they are thickest and could stand a bit of chilly weather.”