It's the peak of apple-picking season this weekend and with the North Country dubbed apple country this time of year, it would be a shame to spend the weekend doing anything but.
Most well known for the McIntosh variety, the Champlain Valley is swelling with apples from the orchards surrounding us.
Although it was a rainy summer, the cooler temperatures and warm, sunny spring combined for a productive growing season for most of the orchards in the area.
Plattsburgh’s Banker’s Orchard owner Bruce Sullivan takes a minute to rest amidst his mass of freshly picked McIntosh apples.
(Enterprise photo — Emily Hunkler)
According to Bruce Sullivan, owner of Banker's Orchard in Plattsburgh, the cooler summer temperatures allow more time for the apples to ripen on the branch, enhancing their flavor.
For many families and classrooms, it is a tradition to visit orchards in the fall, enjoying the hayrides, warm cider and donuts, and picking pumpkins to either paint or carve. However, if one travels just beyond the pick-your-own rows of trees, the true work of an apple orchard is visible by the wooden boxes being filled and piled on flat-bed trucks and the echoes of the apple-pickers coming from the vast, expansive rows of trees. Past the pony rides, animal farm and apple crisps, there is quite a bit of work that goes into every northern New York apple you eat.
A wide variety
The types of apples you can expect to find in the North Country during your apple-picking excursions:
McIntosh - the signature, classic New York eating apple; sweet with a juicy tart tang; ripens around Sept. 5.
Empire - mix of sweet and tart with a crisp bite and creamy flesh; ripens around Oct. 1.
Crispin - a perfect all-purpose apple, good for eating, sauce, baking and freezing; sweet, yet spicy; ripens around Oct. 25.
Gala - mildly sweet flavor; very crisp; ripens around Sept. 15.
Red Delicious - think of the apple you give to the teacher on the first day of class; extra sweet flavor; ripens around Oct. 15.
Honeycrisp - complex sweet-tart flavor, very crisp bite; ripens around Sept. 20.
Golden Delicious - mild and sweet flavor; cuts down the sugar in pies and sauces; ripens around Oct. 15.
Cortland - excellent all-purpose apple; sweet with a hint of tart; ripens around Sept. 20.
Ginger Gold - sweet and mild tart; slow to turn brown, making it excellent for fresh use; ripens around Aug. 25.
Fuji - great snacking apple; very sweet, juicy and crisp; ripens around Sept. 25.
By no means is this list exhaustive of the many varieties of apples to be found in the North Country. For more information on apple varieties, as well as a complete list of pick-your-own places throughout the area, visit
Bruce and Nina Sullivan bought the old Banker Orchard in 1979, the same year they got married. Bruce had grown up in the apple business - his father, Fran Sullivan, owns the massive Sullivan Orchard in Peru - Nina had dreamed of working with animals as a child and somewhere over the past three decades, both of their goals and dreams have been realized.
The now 70-acre orchard has grown substantially from the 1979 25-acre farm it was. Originally planted in 1923, the Sullivans have slowly been replacing some of the older trees with newly planted ones; however, an 85-year-old snow apple tree, named Grandpa, still remains on the grounds.
While their number-one crop is McIntosh, Banker's boasts nearly 30 different types of apples, including Cortland, Honeycrisp, Ginger Gold, Jonamac, Jonagold and several others. But, according to Nina, the McIntosh is their money maker.
"It's just an all-around good apple," Nina said. "The color of it, the flavor of it, the cooking ability of it - people just like them."
Nina said that while they do sell bags of apples in their store and bushels to those who take them to local farmer's markets for resale, the majority of the McIntoshes go to the Champlain Valley Apple Storage in Peru where they are shipped to a wide variety of supermarkets across the country, from Boston, Mass. to Tallahassee, Fla.
But it's been the weather this year that the Sullivans are really crediting for the great harvest.
Great weather for apple-growing
Although many in the area have complained about the cool, rainy summer, the apples are thriving because of it, still on the branches and ripening more and more each day.
"There were some storms this summer, but we managed to dodge every one," Nina said.
Nina said that had the storms hit their orchard, much of the fruit would most likely have fallen to the ground and would had to have been sacrificed or sold for animal feed.
Bruce said it was the pollination season in the spring that gave way to the great apples.
"Pollination was in mid-May and that was the best weather we could have had for it," Bruce said.
Like the larger orchards in the area, the Sullivans rent bee colonies to help pollinate their trees.
"We bring in about 20 colonies of bees," Bruce said. "Each colony has thousands of bees in it. I'm not sure how many we get here as a total, but it's a lot."
But bees aren't the only workers the Sullivans bring in for apple season; the men picking the apples throughout the orchard are all flown in from Jamaica for the picking season.
"The Jamaicans have been doing the picking since 1984," Bruce said of the 18 migrant workers they employ. "We transport them up here and give them lodging for the time they're here."
Nina said that, among other things, socio-economic changes have led to the orchards using migrant workers for the harvesting, not to mention, she said, "They're just good pickers!"
"It used to be 20 years ago you would have women who stayed at home without jobs that would come in and pick to make some extra money," Nina said. "Now, with everything costing more, everybody has a full-time job."
Nina said they try and request the same workers each year, and for the most part, they have been consistent.
Carl McKinson has been working at Banker's for more than 10 seasons now.
McKinson said that although he has a family in Jamaica, he enjoys coming to Banker's to pick the apples.
"It's farming that I do," McKinson said. "In Jamaica I farm yams, bananas and cabbage. I like to do the apples, I enjoy it. It's been a good time, a long time that I've been coming here."
The care McKinson puts into his work is obvious, unloading the apples he picked into the 20-bushel box as slowly and gently as possible.
"You have to do it carefully so you don't bruise the apples," he explains.
Bruce said the trees have to be picked anywhere from two to four times a season because they spot pick the trees for color.
McKinson came to the farm on September 8 and will stay through Oct. 20, when he returns to Jamaica.
However, some of the workers won't immediately go back to Jamaica but find work in the southern states, farming through the winter.
But with nearly 30 varieties of apples, along with pumpkins, pears, squash and fancy gourds to offer, not to mention the zoo of 20 animals including alpacas, pigs, goats, geese and donkeys, it's no wonder the staff at the front of the farm has grown as well.
The Banker's Orchard family
"Twenty-nine years ago it was just me and my father working the shop," Nina said of the store that used to be located across the street from its current spot. "Now we have 10 people; with all the work we do around here, we need them."
It is still very much a family affair with Bruce and Nina's sons working in the store and selling grains and carrots to the children wanting to feed the animals, along with Nina's mother and father also working in the store.
Nina said that all the apples and orchard products are packed by hand, and with all the activities they host - from hayrides and pony rides to pumpkin picking and painting - the influx of visitors makes for more work.
Although the picking season ends in just a couple weeks, Banker's will be open until December 23, switching their products to apple gift baskets and handmade wreaths for Christmas.
"We are very busy and I think it's because of all the activities we have going on here," Nina said, not forgetting to add what she sees as the main draw of the crowds, "We have the best apples!"
Contact Emily Hunkler at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.