Cold killed the peaches but
rain super-charged the apples


By Zach Laird
MethuenLife Writer

This past February, temperatures in Methuen reached as low as minus-12 degrees and killed over 90 percent of the peach crops at Methuen’s Mann Orchards.

Mann Orchards co-owner Josh Fitzgerald and his son Levi point out the good health of their Ruby McIntosh crop. Pick-your-own apples starts Saturday, Sept. 9 at Mann’s Riverside Farm on Merrimack Street. Each Saturday and Sunday, visitors can pick from 10am-5pm. Photos by Zach Laird

Operating since 1877, Methuen’s oldest family business has been recovering from a late freeze that affected the growth of peaches, pumpkins and apples, according to co-owner Josh Fitzgerald.

“Just about all of our peach crops were taken out by the freeze,” Josh said of that frigid February, which recorded some of the coldest nights of the year, according to timeanddate.com. “We’re doing the best with the apples and pumpkins and other crops that we have left, but the cold wiped through our peaches, and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.”

It looked as though apples – the farm’s mainstay for 146 years – would suffer the fate as the peaches.

“When we started looking at the apple crop after the freeze, the apples were smaller than my pinky,” said Fitzgerald. “But things turned around over the summer. We just had to wait for the dust to clear.”

Out with the dust, in with the rain.

Despite that killer cold, the rainy summer has boosted the number and quality of every apple variety growing at their farms on Pleasant Valley and Merrimack streets.

“The number of apples higher in the trees, their size, their crunch and their juiciness is unbelievable,” said Josh shortly after a bin of freshly-picked Honey Crisps arrived at the barn for sorting. “It’s all varieties: McIntosh, Macoun, Honey Crisp, Courtland, Mutsu, Ambrosia, Gala, Golden Delicious … and the Rosalee has incredible flavor.”

On May 18, Mother Nature again gave Massachusetts farmers a scare.

“We dodged a major bullet back in May,” said Josh. “We registered 30 degrees in the field. (Meteorologists) predicted a frost, then it turned to a freeze warning.”

The cold didn’t linger but apples on lower branches were susceptible to the damaging cold; meanwhile, higher branches have yielded a bonanza thanks to an abnormally wet summer.

In response to the damaged crops caused by issues like the late freeze, along with varied amounts of rainfalls each summer, Josh and crew were forced to adapt.

To improve irrigation of their apples, the team set up an original system comprised of hose that spreads 18 linear miles around the orchards. They also use a trellis system to support young trees, often growing branches grafted by Josh and his dad Bill.

“Ninety percent of the trees at the river property were grafted by us. They’re man-made trees,” laughed Josh.

“I like to think that we as a family also evolved with the orchard over time,” he added, reflecting on the history of the orchard and how the operation has grown since they first began selling pies to the locals.

“When my family first started the business, it was very seasonal. My grandmother needed to make money, so she decided to start making pies. As things around us grew, we grew, too — really pushing retail and then opening all year-round. It was a huge positive for us, and hopefully for the whole community of Methuen, too, all that we’ve been able to do since we’ve grown.”

Josh expects Mann Orchards to begin selling pumpkins and homemade cider donuts around the beginning of October, or as early as the last couple weeks of September.

“I just hope everyone has a great time this fall if they come pick apples. It’s going to be a great season for our apples and pumpkins. The size and color of them came out just perfect. We’ve had to adapt and make some changes along the way, but I always say that if you’re not learning, you’re not moving.”

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PICK YOUR OWN
Pick-your-own apples begins at the Mann Orchards Riverside Farm, 445 Merrimack St., Methuen on Saturday, Sept. 9. Folks can pick several varieties of apples each Saturday and Sunday from 10am-5pm.

A deep freeze in February wiped out most of the Mann Orchards peach crop, damaged pumpkin plants and some apples. Then the rainy summer reversed their luck and has produced large, juicy, flavorful apples of all varieties.