SEATTLE (MainStreet) -- Apple picking is as much about the state you're picking in as it is about the apples in your basket.
Trees across the nation are heavy with reasons why this is going to be a bounce-back year for apples and apple picking. Last year's U.S. apple crop came in at 221.5 million bushels, or roughly 9.3 billion pounds. That was well below the 9.7 billion pounds that came in during 2009 and the 9.6 billion that graced trees in 2008.
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 226.5 million bushels or 9.5 billion pounds. The U.S. Apple Association industry group is a bit more optimistic in its assessment, predicting 3% growth, to 227.5 million bushels, or just a shade below 9.6 billion pounds. That prediction is right in line with what U.S. orchards have produced on average within the past five years.
The U.S. produces more than 100 varieties of apples commercially and almost 2,500 varieties altogether, but a svelte 15 breeds of apple eat up 90% of U.S. apple production. If you're not a fan of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Granny Smith, Cortland, Empire, Gala, Idared, Ginger Gold, Jonagold, Fuji, Jonathan, Rome, Braeburn or Honeycrisp apples, you're taking a small bite of the $1.9 billion fresh apple market.
That doesn't mean there's not an orchard newcomer every so often. Honeycrisp, for example, came onto the scene only 20 years ago after being developed at the University of Minnesota's horticultural research center and has made the university more than $8 million off the $1-per-tree royalties charged to orchards. That money goes back into a university apple breeding program that grows between 10,000 to 15,000 varieties each year before paring them down to 15 varieties it hopes will produce at least one sellable apple. When it works, it can result in a variety as successful as the SweeTango -- a hybrid of the Honeycrisp and the U of M-produced Zestar apple that gives the university a 4.5% cut of tree revenue.
Minnesota's apple growers are a bit modest and don't like to to go blabbing about their production numbers. That's a bit of a shame, as the home of Honeycrisp, Zestar, SnowSweet and others has more than 25 varieties of apples, 150 orchards and a harvest season that extends from late July to early October.
Of the states that did report their apple numbers to the USDA for its National Agricultural Statistics Service's noncitrus fruit and nuts report back in July, we picked the top 10 and put them into a list of apple vacation destinations ripe for the picking:
2010 fresh apple production: 56.2 million pounds/$25.9 million
There are few experiences more underrated than autumn in Ohio, and few fall flavors as underappreciated as an Ohio apple.
Ohio has more than 110 orchards and 50 varieties of apples. More than half of those orchards are tucked away in the Northeast portion of the state bordering Pennsylvania and sit in the heart of Ohio's Amish country.
This makes for a lovely drive along the Amish Country Byway that winds its way between bright red barns, sprawling crops and dense pockets of forest. While the apples are lovely, they pair nicely with the cheeses offered by the Amish Country cheese makers along the way.
2010 fresh apple production: 70 million pounds/$18.7 million
As if the fall foliage around the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley weren't enough, Virginia has roughly 47 apple orchards, 33 pick-your-own orchards and dozens of strong varieties of apples that include Winesaps, Yorks, Ginger Golds and Staymans. It also has a bit of a later growing season than its Northern neighbors and lets visitors pick their apples into November.
The only tough decision is which part of Virginia to visit. If apple pickers want to make an orchard visit a part of their weekend trip to Washington, D.C., they may want to consider one of the seven pick-your-own orchards in nearby Fredrick County -- including three orchards in Winchester alone. If apple lovers' hearts are set on seeing the quilted Blue Ridge Mountains and perhaps stopping in Charlottesville for dinner or a beer afterward, Nelson County's five pick-your-own orchards, along with Carter Mountain Orchard in Charlottesville itself are good places to start.
2010 fresh apple production: 85 million pounds/$24.7 million
If Oregon has a chip on its shoulder about being overshadowed by neighboring Washington State's billion-dollar-plus apple crop, it's not showing.
Why should it? Oregon has nearly 50 orchards across the state, including a handful in the shadow of Mount Hood along the Columbia River Gorge. A ride along Route 3 to check out the pockets of color and visit the orchards is a lovely idea and all, but it might be better to follow Interstate 5 south just past Portland.
The Willamette Valley is not only teeming with pick-your-own apple orchards and organic cider, but lots of nearby breweries and wineries. Pick a bag of apples, get some cider or a cider doughnut for the road, hit a quick wine tasting and then have a designated driver cap off the day with dinner at a brewpub.
With all of that within just a few miles of Portland, why should Oregonians worry about what Washington's doing a few hours north?
2010 fresh apple production: 111 million pounds/$62 million
Individually, the New England states don't add up to much apple-wise. New Hampshire produced a scant 14.5 million pounds of apples last year and Connecticut did only slightly better with its 18.5 million pounds.
Combine the states, however, and apple lovers suddenly have an apple-picking powerhouse of more than 370 orchards that produce more of the fruit than Oregon in a region that's more than 10,000 square miles smaller.
Massachusetts alone has 78 pick-your-own apple orchards, but apples rank pretty low on the list of reasons to visit New England in the fall. The gold-and-copper canopy of color along the White Mountain Trail in New Hampshire, the covered bridges along Route 9 in Vermont, the centuries-old churches, the quaint villages, the syrup and cheeses and plenty of tiny cabins in the woods make their own arguments.
Perhaps the strongest reason to go apple picking in New England this year is that some areas can use all the help they can get after being hit by Hurricane Irene in August. Vermont and its 35 orchards, in particular, are banking on this year's foliage season to help undo some of the damage to local business after roads and bridges were flooded out and water damage forced shops, restaurants and even some government offices to shutter.
2010 fresh apple production: 115 million pounds/$42.9 million
Oranges, cheese, wine, apples: Is there anything California can't lay claim to?
A lot of the nation's great apple picking takes place in the northern latitudes, but California goes William Tell on that notion by playing home to more than 100 orchards and doing most of its pick-your-own outings in the southern part of the state. Outposts such as Willowbrook Apple Farm and Riley's Farm in Oak Glen produce Delicious, Winesap and Arkansas Black apples and press cider just an hour from Los Angeles.
San Diego County alone has 21 farm stands and pick-your-own apple orchards and includes the more than 100-year-old Peacefield Orchard and its similarly centenarian Apple Days Festival. If apple aficionados really want to do it up California style, they should spend the third weekend of October in Paso Robles taking a bite of the apples and pumpkin pie at Windrose Farm and tasting wine from the area's more than 250 vineyards during Harvest Wine Weekend.
2010 fresh apple production: 190 million pounds/$49 million
The rustic charm of Amish Country, the foliage in Bucks County, the German beers and brats of Western Pennsylvania and the copper and purple mountains of the Poconos are all fine this time of year, but Pennsylvania's apples give the state a flavor all its own.
Many of Pennsylvania's more than 100 apple varieties are imports. That's not so bad when you can go pick some Pink Lady, Gala, Crispin and Honeycrisp without straying too far from home, but it's even better when they're supplemented by a hometown favorite -- the Nittany. A hybrid of Golden Delicious and York apples created by horticultural staff at Pennsylvania State University and introduced in 1979, the Nittany is usually ready for picking around mid-March. Named for the school's Nittany Lion mascot, the Nittany is sweet with a nice, crisp bite and is a great eating-around-the-orchard or pie apple.
It's not exactly hard to find the Nittany or a Pennsylvania orchard, either. The state has almost 120 orchards scattered about, with the biggest clusters found in the southeast corner of the state below Interstate 80 and east of Penn State's home in State College.
If that's a little too broad and vague, just head to the area of Adams county south of Harrisburg and north of Gettysburg with Interstate 81 to the east and Route 15 to the west. There are no fewer that 50 orchards along that stretch to keep you busy between visits to the Gettysburg Battlefield and exploring a stretch of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
2010 fresh apple production: 210 million pounds/$65.1 million
The scary part about Michigan apple production is that those 210 million pounds were actually low thanks to a nasty frost.
Michigan produced 400 million pounds of apples and brought in $87 million from that haul just a year earlier. Its 900 apple farms on 37,000 acres have only increased their planting in recent years to more than double the state's 165 million-pound 2009 output.
For apple lovers who find themselves daunted by those numbers and unsure where to start, don't worry. The state's growers have your back. Do you only want to visit a handful of orchards before seeing a movie and having a steak at a place with a view of Lake Michigan in Traverse City? There's an apple tour for that. Heard about the breweries near Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and want to pick some apples before grabbing a pint? There's an apple tour for that too.
Have a kid going to the University of Michigan and just want to get out of Ann Arbor for a few hours before he or she calls you "dude" or "bro" again? You're getting the picture.
2010 fresh apple production: 600 million pounds/$157.8 million
New York's production and orchard numbers are probably the least impressive apple-related facts apple pickers should be aware of.
Yes, the state has 279 orchards spread almost evenly along Interstate 87's gold-and-copper Hudson River Valley corridor of the Hudson River Valley, around the foliage-friendly finger lakes and amid the changing leaves on the coast of Lake Ontario. Yes, last year was also a down year for the Empire State, where trees were plucked of 685 million pounds of apples in 2009. More impressive than all of those numbers is that many of those apples are native New Yorkers.
Cornell University's apple breeding program at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva has produced an all-star bushel of apples during its more than 125-year history. It's the birthplace of the Cortland (a McIntosh crossed with a Ben Davis apple in 1915), Empire (Delicious and McIntosh, 1966), Macoun (McIntosh and Jersey Black, 1923), Jonagold (Golden Delicious and Jonathan, 1968), JonaMac (Jonathan and McIntosh, 1972) and Liberty (Macoun and PRI, 1978).
2010 fresh apple production: 4.6 billion pounds/$1.4 billion
Much as Idaho is tied to the potato and Hawaii embraces the pineapple, Washington owns the apple.
Think that's an overstatement? Look at that $1.4 billion again, and now look at it and consider that the U.S. as a whole brought in $1.95 billion from apple sales last year. Washington's take is more than double that of the rest of the country combined.
That's also, unfortunately, the only reason it's at the top of this list. This state may count its apples by the billions, but it counts its orchards with fingers and toes and still comes up short. Since Washington's output comes overwhelmingly from commercial-grade apple production, it has only 19 orchards. Super orchards or not, it's still somewhat stunning to think that the state much of America associates with apples has fewer orchards than Rhode Island (22).
To make matters just a bit worse, there are only three (that's 3) orchards in the state that allow you to pick your own apples, and they are nowhere near each other. Rosabella's Garden in Bow has 25 apple varieties, cider, cider doughnuts and even hard cider and is in one of the lovelier parts of the state -- right near the water facing the San Juan Islands. The only downside is that it is so far northeast that Victoria, B.C., is at a latitude south of it.
In the extreme opposite direction in the southeast corner of the state, east of Walla Walla in Clarkston, is the more than 120-year-old Wilson Banner Ranch and its dozens of apple varieties, pumpkin patch, cider room and October harvest fair. Its selection of peaches, pears, apricots, cherries, plumcots, prunes, heirloom tomatoes, berries and honey sounds lovely -- in fact, much lovelier than its description as "the only green place with trees out here" in an arid, wheat-laden section of the state.
That leaves the Turcott Orchards of Wapato in Washington's Yakima Valley dead in the middle. You get to pick your own peaches and pears and perhaps visit the Yakima wineries afterward, which is just fine and all. But if you're in that neck of the woods anyway, get the apple picking finished early and head north on Interstate 82, Route 97 and Route 2 to the faux-Bavarian Alpine town of Leavenworth for some Oktoberfest celebration. While you're heading in that direction anyway, take a portion of the Cascade Loop through the mountains for a glimpse over the terrifying heights and banking roads of Stevens Pass, the turquoise lakes and pine-green mountains around Ross Lake and even a bag of cherries, shot of espresso or sip of cider at the roadside stands along the route.
Are you an avid apple-picker? If so be sure to check out MainStreet's look at 15 Surprising Ways to Use Apples! But if apple picking is more of an excuse for a nice little road trip then be sure to check out 5 Scenic Train Rides Through America and 10 Must-See Fall Festivals!