‘‘I got four!” Marleigh Cooper, 4, called out excitedly.
Her mom, Emily Cooper of Bellevue, admired the small bag of perfect apples that Marleigh had picked right off the tree at Trees, Shrubs & More in Bellevue.
“This is what it's all about,” said owner Dale Watson on Wednesday as he handed out apple slices to Marleigh and her 12 classmates from Calvary Christian Church's Dandelion preschool in Bellevue.
The children sat on the ground between rows of nearly naked trees sampling Fuji, Cortland, Honey Gold, Gala and Jonathan apples.
“I want to live here forever and taste apples,” said preschooler Evie Barr.
“U-pick” orchards, where families and other groups can go into the groves and harvest their own fruit, are generally open well into the fall. But this year, orchards may have to harvest the remaining apples early, depending on the weather, and some varieties are already gone. This year, U-pick early birds got the best selection.
Hot, dry winds, as we had this week, cause the apples to drop to the ground and become damaged. And growers saw apples ripen as much as two to three weeks earlier than usual this year. Even late-ripening varieties are being harvested ahead of schedule.
Area apple growers all agree that this was a bad year, from bud to harvest, though the apples taste just fine.
At Watson's orchard and others, the weather woes started in March, with premature spring warming. Then came hard freezes in April and high winds and hail in May. Watson lost 90 percent of his crop in April, and worse, about 19 trees blew down in 80 mph winds in May.
And that was before the hot, dry summer, which resulted in sunburn damage to the fruit.
“See,” he said, pointing to a Gala apple with the pinkish blush of a sunburn near the stem. “It's cooked on the tree.”
The overall supply of apples at area orchards this year varies depending on an orchard's location, weather and topography.
Supplies at Kimmel Orchards in Nebraska City are good, but manager Erik Olson advises customers to come early for the best selection.
Olson said some of the early customer favorites, such as Honey Crisp, have been picked and “we're about done selling them, too.”
But the orchard still has eight varieties in good supply, including Jonathans, a popular apple for pies and other desserts.
This year, for the first time, Olson tried a sunburn prevention technique that involved spraying a lotion on some of the apples most exposed to the sun.
Like sunscreen, the barrier washes off easily after the fruit is harvested. Olson said the product was effective on the treated apples.
At Ditmars' Orchard in Council Bluffs, owner Lyle Ditmars seemed confident in his supply.
“We're going to have enough to take care of our customers — plenty of apples inside — but not for wholesale,” he said.
At Trees, Shrubs & More, Watson said, “we would normally have 4,000 bushels of apples now. Instead, we've got about 400 bushels — total, all varieties.”
For now, Trees, Shrubs & More has enough apples for small groups of children to fill a sack and beam in delight. But the bottom line for the public is that U-pick days are numbered.
The temperatures and the winds will determine how long orchards will allow the U-pick days.
“If it stays dry and goes back to the hot 90s, apples will want to drop,” Ditmars said. “We can't let that happen, and we'll go out and pick them.”
If they drop, and it rains, as it did Wednesday, fallen apples quickly begin to go bad.
Despite the rough season, only some apple growers are raising prices.
Ditmars said he is charging about 25 cents a pound more than last year. Kimmel prices are the same as last year, $8 for five pounds, $12 for 10 pounds and $30 for a bushel. Prices at Trees, Shrubs & More have stayed the same as well, around $1.50 to $2 a pound.
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