Friday, July 5, 1996
Apple crop lost to rain and dead bees

The Cincinnati Enquirer

HEBRON - Apple lovers may have their hearts broken and wallets lightened come fall.

The local crop of Jonathans, Grimes and the like is looking iffy, battered by harsh weather and a decimated bee population. So, when fall's apples are ready for picking, they'll be in short supply. And cost more.

''This is the worst year I've seen,'' says Charlie Hempfling. And he's seen 69 of them.

For 69 years, Charlie's lived and worked at Valley Orchards, a stand of rich bottom land in Hebron near the Kentucky shore of the Ohio. The 35 acres of apple and peach trees he harvests have been owned and farmed by four generations of his family since 1916.

He's seen good years. He's seen bad. ''This,'' he repeats, ''is the worst.''

He ticks off the reasons: ''It snowed too late. It rained too much. It got too hot too soon. And the bees just up and quit.''

Because they up and died. The weather - winter snows, spring frosts and relentless rains - and two kinds of mites have killed 95 percent of the nation's wild bees. With honey makers in short supply, many apple blossoms went unpollinated. This ruined the makings of a bumper crop.

Spring's promise broken

''In the spring, these Jonathans bloomed like snowballs,'' Charlie says. ''My God! They were beautiful.''

He guides his pickup between two rows of apple trees.

''Now, look at 'em. On the south side, everything looks normal.''

The trees' branches droop to the ground. They're weighted down with fruit. Bunches of green apples the size of golf balls - ''about right for this time of year'' - touch the tops of the tall grass.

''But, on the north side. Oh my. See that? Look there. Nothing.''

Charlie points out bare branches where apples should be. He rubs his leathery chin with a work-roughened paw and looks down at his empty palm.

His truck is barely crawling. The sound of the straining engine is almost drowned out by a fussing family of blackbirds.

''The north side of the trees was too cold and damp,'' he explains. ''The bees quit working. . . . They couldn't pollinate the blooms. So, the branches are bare.''

Up one row. Down the other. The more he drives, the more disgusted he gets. ''The late summer apple crop of Jonathans and Grimes goldens is down one-third to one-half from last year,'' he mutters. ''Peaches are the same way.''

He turns down a gravel road and stops by a peach tree. The fruit barely bends the branches. ''It's just chest high,'' Charlie notes. ''Nothing lower. Frost got the low blossoms.''

Gathering speed, the pickup bumps toward the main road. Weeds crowd close to the truck's cab. Dragonflies crisscross in front of the windshield.

''The rain didn't affect the bugs,'' he says. ''Or the weeds. One's still biting. The other's still growing.''

No crop, no sales

Charlie heads to the barn, where he runs his farm market. ''I'm open seven days a week. I've got plenty of customers,'' he sighs. ''But not much to sell.''

Nearly empty grocery-store style coolers display lonely bags of just-picked peas and bunches of green onions.

A few scattered baskets and bags of green Lodi apples sit on a nearby table.

''Good sauce apples,'' the farmer says. ''But there's not much of them.''

The Lodi crop is down 75 percent from last year. Too much rain and not enough bees make for too few apples.

''I tell people I don't know how to farm anymore,'' Charlie says as he examines a black spot - ''just skin deep, caused by the rain'' - on a Lodi.

''They think I'm kidding. I'm not.

''The weather's crazy. We go from winter to summer, summer to winter. There's no spring or fall anymore. Nothing's normal, and the crops show it.''

Charlie's disposition shows it, too.

''I got awful depressed this year,'' he says. ''The rain just about took the life out of me. We'd no sooner finish a job - like spraying our apples for fungus - and turn around and see the rain wash all of our hard work away.''

But then he looks up from the green apple and grins.

''That's why I like to tease and cut up with people. You can't look at the bad side of life all the time.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.