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Local orchard and vinyard harvest on track to be a good one

Grapes are ready to be picked at Falconer Vineyards. John Falconer said harvest, which should finish up in the coming weeks, ran later than usual due to a larger than normal crop

Fall harvest is well under way in the area's orchards and vineyards. This year's haul seems to be somewhat of a mixed bag, ranging from slightly small to what John Falconer of Falconer Vineyards in Red Wing calls a "bumper crop."

"For us, it's a little smaller than we'd like to see," said Nick Lucking, of Lucking's Cannon Valley Orchard in Cannon Falls.

"We have a solid crop," said Vince Steffen of Apple Ridge Orchard and Vineyard in Mazeppa.

"I would say that it's about average for the year," said Herdie Baisden of Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery.

Still, no one seems overly disappointed with their haul.

"Most orchards escaped most of the problems that Mother Nature can throw at us," said Tom Ferguson, owner of Ferguson's Orchard in Lake City and president of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association. "For the most part, the crop overall is excellent."

That's especially good news, considering last fall's harvest was cut drastically by an early spring that caused the plants to flower followed by a late frost that damaged many of those blossoms before they had a chance to develop.

"Last year was an exceptionally bad year," Ferguson said.

But there were no false starts to spring this year and, if anything, warmer temps arrived later than normal, Ferguson said.

"It was maybe a week late," he said, adding that a late spring means flowers are less likely to die in a late frost. "It gives us safety."

Yet this year didn't have completely perfect growing weather. Lucking said moist weather made Haralsons prone to russeting, a disease where the apple develops a rough exterior.

Lucking said the affected apples are still edible and taste good, but "they're not as desirable."

Lucking said other varieties, however, such as the Sweet Sixteen, made for a nice crop.

For Apple Ridge Orchard and Winery, the cold spring meant a poorer crop of SweeTangos. Steffen added that the other varieties fared better. Still, overall, the orchard's crop this year was about 10 percent smaller than last year.

For Baisden at Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery, a lot of cool and cloudy days this summer made the sugars in the grapes develop about two or three weeks later than normal.

"We need warm sunny days to build sugar," Baisden said.

Still, he said the grape harvest has been completed. They're continuing to work on the apple harvest, though, which was delayed by the late spring. Baisden said harvest should go through mid-November.

Other farmers have also been set back. Ferguson said his apple harvest is running about a week behind.

"We're about three-quarters of the way," he said.

Falconer is another farmer still working on harvesting. But for him, harvest isn't late. It's merely taking longer because of a crop that is about 50 percent larger than most.

"We just have more work to do," he said.

Others, aided by warm temps and no rain -- what Lucking calls "good apple picking weather" -- have already put harvest behind them.

"We were able to get it done really quick," Lucking said. "We finished up last week. Harvest was right when it should have occurred."

For those still working, they're hoping this week's warm, dry temps continue and not just because it makes for prime working weather.

"When we have warmer weather, we have more customers," said Baisden. "Especially when we have leaves on the trees."

At Falconer Vineyards, warm temps have made for large numbers of visitors, Falconer said. That's especially true now that the vineyard has begun changing colors and its bistro is open for lunches and dinners.

"Each weekend has been a new record since September started," he said.

Still, there's no guarantee that those warm temps -- and accompanying tourists -- will continue through the end of harvest. That's a chance all growers take, according to Ferguson.

"It's always a gamble," he said with a laugh. "It's part of farming."