By John O’Connell
Intermountain Farm and Ranch
Chan and Cathy Cabalo have a bumper crop of apples at their 6-acre orchard in Kuna this season, and they've never seen such a steady flow of customers coming to pick their own fruit.
Cabalo's Orchard and Gardens is one of several Idaho fruit farms benefiting from unprecedented U-pick demand, largely from families seeking safe, outdoor activities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The state's fruit farm owners say they're also selling out of lower-grade fruit marketed for canning, thanks to a recent trend of people concerned about potential food supply-chain disruptions working to become more self-sufficient.
"A lot of people showing up here, it's the first time they've ever been to a U-pick operation," Chan Cabalo said. "Most people, they're wanting to get out of the house. That's the biggest thing."
The Cabalos plated more produce than normal this spring in their vegetable garden, seeing signs that local food would be in especially high demand due to COVID-19. Cathy Cabalo admits she's been exhausted lately trying to keep up with the extra business.
"Twice as many people are coming through," she said. "A lot of people are wanting to process this and that and some of them are just wanting to get out of the house."
Customers have told her that lids and jars for canning have become a scarce commodity.
Fruit production is cyclical, and Shannon Anderson, with Anderson Apple Ranch in Emmett, had a banner harvest last fall. This season, however, production at her 5-acre apple orchard is down a bit, though she said the fruit is beautiful.
She opened her orchard to U-pick customers on Aug. 26.
"My traffic on my website and my Facebook page is going through the roof. People are calling all the time and saying, 'Can we come out?'" Anderson said.
One of the perks of buying U-pick fruit from her orchard is that Anderson allows her guests to sample her crop while they fill their baskets.
"If you go and pick an apple off a tree and eat it you can't beat it. It's so good," Anderson said.
Isom's Fruit Farm in Blackfoot started harvest on Sept. 10 but waits until October to accept U-pick customers, who tend to be hard on trees. They try to make apple picking a fun family event, offering free apple cider.
"Back East, U-pick is huge, and it's fun to see it take off here because our kids don't know where their food comes from," Jeanne Isom said.
The family offers cases of No. 2 canning-quality apples, which have been on back order recently. Isom said one customer requested 19 cases of canning apples.
"There's kind of a sentiment out there kind of like it used to be years ago when people used to be self-sufficient," Isom said.
Isom said her orchard has enjoyed both outstanding yield and quality this season, despite some weather challenges.
"This year will be near a bumper crop," she said.
It's been a hot growing season, and the family's predominant apple variety, honey crisp, thrives in temperatures under 90 degrees. Isom said her family also avoided catastrophe when recent strong winds swept through the region.
They had planted rows of large poplar and spruce trees as wind breaks to protect their fruit trees; the strategy paid off during the recent wind storm.
"I thought they were more for decoration," Isom joked about the trees in her wind breaks. "It was bout 26 hours of just blowing. They worked really well."
Michael Williamson, with Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell, said April frost reduced yields of his white-fleshed peaches, wine grapes and sweet cherries by 20% to 30%.
Because he had a light crop, he sold all of his cherries via U-pick, rather than hiring labor to harvest them. He drew an unexpectedly large crowd and was sold out of cherries after two days of U-pick harvesting at the end of June.
"It was an incredible turnout," Williamson said. "Everybody was looking for a reason to get out."