Optimism amidst drought and pandemic concerns as Smyth’s Orchard opens doors for 2020 season

Dean and Nikki Beckstead of Smyth’s Apple Orchard with the first varieties of the season now available in the orchard store. (The Leader/Comfort photo)

DUNDELA – Saturday August 1st was opening day at Smyth’s Apple Orchard in Dundela and the number of people that came by the store on that first day was pleasantly surprising to Dean and Nikki Beckstead (pictured) of the family-run business.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that a few more rules are in place, such as mandatory masking when entering the market store, it has also meant that a lot more people are looking for local products and experiences to enjoy.

So far the first apples available in the store which is open 9-5, seven days a week, are the Yellow Transparent and Vista Bella. Also available in store are jams, jellies, chutneys ciders and baked goods, along with a number of local specialty products such as honey.

“I was very surprised at the number of people that came in on day one and I thank them, and all of our customers, very much,” said Dean.

“The local support that we get from our community is great. It makes this all worthwhile.”

Nikki said that on the first day, they had a lady from Russell in to buy a bushel of yellow transparent. She drives from Russell twice a year – once early for a bushel of Yellow Transparent apples to make apple sauce and once later for a bushel of Spy apples to make her Christmas pies. “Support like that and being part of someone’s traditions, definitely makes this worth it,” said Nikki.

Now that people are becoming more accustomed to physical distancing and wearing masks any store measures that have been put in place here aren’t really a big deal.

For anyone who is not comfortable going into the market, Nikki said that she is offering curbside pickup by calling the store. (Details are available at smythsapples.com)

They do offer a lovely, low-key, pick your own apple experience. Nikki explained that it’s a nice walk through the orchard where they show areas where you can pick. “It’s pretty relaxed. People seem to enjoy it,” she said.

“We have guidelines to follow to be safe and keep everyone safe, and that’s just the way it is. It’s safety first,” said Dean.

Because Smyth’s Orchard relies heavily on offshore labour, bringing in temporary foreign workers annually from Jamaica, they have experienced a lot of extra stress and headaches to prepare for the arrival of those workers.

“We’ve been a couple of months getting everything sorted out,” said Dean explaining that there had to be modifications to living quarters and that they will have to regularly temperature check their workers and keep records.

In a normal year they would have up to 17 temporary foreign workers at the orchard but this year they are only allowed 14.

“We have to make do with that,” said Dean. They will be arriving about two weeks later than they would in a normal year and will be here until the end of October.

Usually the workers are taken into Morrisburg once a week for banking and groceries, but that will not be happening this year.

For the safety of both the workers and the community that practice will change.

Extra planning and preparations have gone into keeping the workers at the orchard.

Nikki said that they have been working with Laura’s Valumart in Morrisburg to arrange groceries through their PC Express service.

While 2020 has been a difficult year because of the ongoing pandemic, it has also been a difficult year for food growers. This is the third consecutive year that the growing season has been wrought with drought conditions.

So, the weekend rain was a welcome sight at Smyth’s Orchard.

“While we don’t like to see the wind, we are glad to finally be getting some moisture,” said Dean.

He explained that the apples will suck up any bit of moisture they can, and that’s where they will get their size.

Even though there have been drought conditions for the last three years, Dean says that each year is different from the others.

To achieve the size and colour that is most desirable in stores, this year a lot of extra time, effort and fuel has gone into thinning the crop so that the apples that are produced are as good as possible.

Every variety of apple has slightly different needs so Dean says they don’t really know how good they will be until they are ready.

“We’re completely at the mercy of the weather,” said Dean, adding that all he can do now is hope that they have decent fruit to sell and that they can sell enough to pay the bills as overhead costs keep increasing.

His assessment of the crop that he’s seeing to date: “So far so good. We would always like to see more size, but it’s a nice clean looking crop. I just hope we can get the size and colour that the stores want.”

With the growing season that’s left, Dean doesn’t think the fruit this year will be oversized, “but we’re hoping for the best.”

Smyth’s Apple Orchard is a family-run business that had its beginning in the mid-1800’s. It’s located along County Road 18 west of Williamsburg in South Dundas at Dundela where two monuments commemorate John McIntosh who discovered an apple tree in his back yard. Through careful attendance and grafting by his son Allen, the native apple grew in popularity and was appropriately named the McIntosh Red. McIntosh orchards throughout the world originated from this single tree.

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