RICHMOND -- For Ron Bartlett, last year's apple harvest was a disappointment.
After an early spring warm spell that tricked many of the trees into budding early at Bartlett's Orchards in Richmond, a hard frost that followed caused significant damage to the delicate buds -- and to business.
When the season was over, Bartlett's had harvested about 7,000 bushels of apples, which is only about half of the yield in a typical year.
The apples sold out quickly. He didn't have apples left to make cider, and he didn't have enough funds to stock the store as he usually does.
But this season's erratic weather has had quite the opposite effect. In preparation, he's hiring a larger staff once again for a fall season of abundance.
"This year, apples are good and healthy," Bartlett said, "as bizarre as the weather has been."
It's a matter of timing. Recent bouts of extreme weather haven't come during periods that would cause as much damage. For example, during heavy rains this June, the apples had already been pollinated but had not grown too much yet, Bartlett said. Had the rains arrived any earlier or later, the crop would have been damaged.
So far, the apples are round and juicy. The chilly nights and sunny days are bringing out a beautiful red hue, and farmers are anticipating a bountiful autumn crop.
The roughly half-dozen Berkshire apple orchards are a bastion of the idyllic New England autumn, and, between now and Labor Day, they'll start to open to the public for pick-your-own.
"It starts to get cold, and everyone starts thinking about apples," said Hilltop Orchards in Richmond's Orchard Manager David Martelli. He added that the weather at the end of this summer -- hot, then rainy, then cool -- will yield crisp, sweet apples.
It's entertainment picking," said Howard Wilson, garden manager at Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington. "On a busy day, hundreds show up," he added.
Pick-your-own farms also provide an inexpensive, fun and healthful way to spend the day.
Produce customers are attracted to local orchards for many reasons: a desire to support the local economy, a fear of pesticides on corporate farm apples (although local orchards use pesticides as well) and an insistence that fresh apples simply taste better.
Local orchards also grow apple varieties that might not be carried in the grocery store. Bartlett explained that apples are like colors, in that different types are mixed to create different types, both naturally and in a lab.
"Generally speaking, the apples that are sold in the grocery store need to be perfect," Wilson said. But small orchards have room to grow a variety of different kinds of apples, including varieties of "ugly" heirloom apples.
The New England climate and soil also allows for apple varieties that cannot be grown anywhere else, according to Judy Juczak, wife of the owner of Lakeview Orchard in Lanesborough.
The first apples of the season tend to be light and tart. At Bartlett's, the Paula Red, similar to its parent McIntosh apple in its crisp, white flesh, is bagged and sold. And Lakeview has begun its season with the Williams Pride apple, a lab-created variety that's dark and juicy.
And as the season progresses, the ripest variety changes. With it comes the color and flavor. It's echoed in the cider at Hilltop Orchards, which uses the most in-season apples for cider. "In the beginning, it's lighter and more tart," Martelli said. "As you get on with the season, it will get darker and sweeter."
Local orchards also offer a variety of apple-related products: cider, pastries, jams. Bartlett said variety is a key to staying in business.
Plus, there's just something about New England apples that makes them delicious, Juczak said.
"New England apples have a much nicer flavor than apples grown in the southern states or in Washington," she said. "But, you know, maybe that's just me being biased at my orchard."
Them apples ...
There's a plethora of apple varieties out there. Here are but a few grown or sold locally:
Paula Red: A natural mutation of the McIntosh. It grows early in the season, in late August.
McIntosh: This apple is an apple cultivar, or a variety selected with the most desirable characteristics through propagation. It has tart flavor and white flesh. It ripens in late September.
Golden Russet: Yellow, with thick, rough skin. Often used to make hard cider.
Honeycrisp: Developed at the University of Minnesota in 1960 and released in 1991, this apple is sweet and retains pigment well. It is most commonly eaten raw.
Lodi: This is an early-season yellow apple with a tart flavor, and is best used for cooking.
There are a plethora of orchards out there, too. Make sure to call ahead to verify that apples are open for pick-your-own on the day that you're visiting. At most orchards, this will begin around Labor Day, once enough apples have grown ripe for picking. For more tips and tricks, visit pickyourown.org.
Bartlett's Orchard: 575 Swamp Road, Richmond. (413) 698-2559,
Hilltop Orchards: Route 295 / Canaan Road, Richmond. (413) 698-3301,
Jaeschke's Orchard: Orchards at 23 Gould Road, Adams. (413) 743-3896. Farm stand and greenhouses at 740 Crane Ave., Pittsfield. (413) 443-7180.
Lakeview Orchard: 94 Old Cheshire Road, Lanesborough. (413) 448-6009, lakevieworchard.com.
Riiska Brook Orchard: 101 New Hartford Road, Sandisfield. (413) 258-4761, riiskabrookorchard.com.
Windy Hill Farm: Route 7, 686 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington. (413) 298-3217, windyhillfarminc.com.