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The season of harvest

This is the Paula Reds' last week but the Red Barons, McIntosh, Zestar and Estival are available. In the next two weeks, Cortlands and Sweet Sixteens will be on deck.

If you are not familiar with the names, they are varieties of apples grown in the St. Croix Valley. Most local growers are open for business, and some will stay open into early December.

A trip to the orchard is more than an opportunity to buy fresh apples, it's a way to appreciate fall and hang on to the last warm days before winter.

Picking your own apples is an option at Afton Apple. Customers ride into the areas being picked sitting on bales of straw on a hay wagon pulled by a tractor.

Picking fall raspberries is also an option.

Cindy and Frank Femling, Afton Apple owners, are in their 18th year of marketing apples on 119 acres. "We thought it was a good place to raise our three kids," Cindy said. All the kids work in the apple business.

In addition to apple picking, bags of picked apples are available in the store along with frozen apple pies and apple crisp. Hot dogs and apple doughnuts are also sold to hungry pickers. A petting zoo and play area are available for children of all ages.

The Afton Apple Corn Maze opens Sept. 16. In a corn maze, a path is cut through a cornfield, that people work to find their way out of.

From above you can see that the corn maze is cut in the pattern of two honeybees. There are 24 stations in the maze with questions about bees with answers at the next station. "We try to educate people about agriculture as well as entertain them," Cindy said.

Many people come to orchards in search of a specific variety of apples, according to Gary McDougall of McDougall's Apple Junction. Open this week, customers are asking when Honeycrisps will be ready, he said.

Honeycrisps -- not quite ready for picking -- are a hybrid variety developed by the University of Minnesota that is very popular with customers, McDougall said, adding that people should try other varieties. Samples of apples are available. "Eat them while they are fresh," he said. "There isn't a bad apple."

Honeycrisps seem to grow best in a cold climate such as Minnesota. The variety has not been as successful in Washington and California, apple growing powerhouse states, he said, but are doing well in Canada.

Among the other new varieties are Estival and Zestar, which are now available. "Zestar ripens earlier than Honeycrisp," McDougall said. "Zestar has more flavor. It's crisp but not crunchy and keeps seven to eight weeks if refrigerated. Estival, also developed in Minnesota, is a good eating apple but won't hold up in pies. It will keep three to four weeks."

McDougall's advises keeping apples refrigerated.

"Keep them in the bag you bought them in and put in a damp paper towel," he said.

If you are going to make applesauce, consider buying "seconds" and "utilities" that are generally cheaper than top-grade apples. "They might have blemishes on the skin or don't have as much color," he said. "They do not have worms and there is nothing wrong with them."

McDougall likes to drink apple cider, as do many of his customers. None of the growers make their own fresh cider but buy it from a processor who pasteurizes it for customer safety.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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