Fall is in the air — literally, as our days and nights grow colder. And with it comes a myriad of simple pleasures: hiking, fishing and hunting; picturesque holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving; the start of the football season and post-season baseball and soccer; scenic drives to view fall foliage across the country. Most ubiquitous of all, though, might be fall harvest festivals. While some of us frolic through mazes of corn and ride on tractors filled with hay, we shouldn’t forget that fall is serious business for thousands of orchard farmers and communities across the country. While popular only-from-trees treats like oranges, maple syrup and peaches keep the farmers busy from late winter to late summer, the apples in that pie and those chestnuts roasting over an open fire are thanks to the hard work of fall harvests from trees.

How do you like them apples?

Credit: Joyosity

Did you know that the state of Washington was responsible for almost 60 percent of America’s apple crop in 2010?

New York State was the second largest 2010 producer, contributing almost 1.3 billion pounds of apples or 14 percent of the total. But Mother Nature has not been so kind to the East Coast farmer in 2011.

First, it was an incredibly wet spring. This made protecting the trees and apples from every farmer’s nightmares, apple scab and fly speck, even more difficult than usual. Combine that with the fact that researchers are finding that apple scab fungus is becoming more resistant to pesticides, and it was a challenging spring and summer for eastern farmers.

And that was before Hurricanes Irene and Lee blew through the area. The region’s farmers held a collective breath that their crops would survive the storms. They did. According to New York Apple Association president Jim Allen, they’ve “got a beauty of a crop.” While individual farms suffered losses, overall, apple picking along the eastern seaboard is ripe for action.

Trailing Washington and New York in apple production is Michigan. The Midwest region produces almost 10 percent of America’s apples. Unlike the East Coast, the Midwest experienced an almost idyllic growing season — and it’s showing in this year’s crop.

A mild spring with minimal frost, a warm summer with scattered rain and cool nights this fall have resulted in a bounty of apples. Both Michigan and Illinois are expecting harvests double those of last year.

But, how did the granddaddy of apple growers fair this year? Just fine, thank you. While Washington’s total production is expected to drop 2.7 percent from last year, it might be a record-breaking year for international apple exports for the state, which sees a third of its annual crop on average head out of the U.S.

Overall, the nation’s apple crop is up three percent over last year — mainly thanks to Michigan’s stellar year.

If all of that doesn’t make you want some apple pie, apple cider, apple cobbler or applesauce, well, we’re guessing you don’t like apples.

Are you nuts for (tree) nuts?

Specifically, almonds? Well, millions of Americans are, as almonds make up almost 60 percent of the utilized — meaning the ones actually used, not just harvested — tree nut crop in 2010. The smallest crop? Macadamia nuts. Guess others don’t love those white-chocolate macadamia nut cookies as much as we do.

Pecan tree shaker. Credit: Kurt and Sybilla

When most of us think about harvesting from trees, we think about plucking apples or pears or oranges straight from the tree, but nuts require more muscle. Enter the five-plus-ton shakers. These machines grip a tree’s trunk and … shake. Hard. They kick up so much dust and debris that nearby neighbors need to take precautions during harvest time to prevent respiratory problems. The fallen nuts are left where they’ve landed to dry for at least a day before being collected for distribution.

In 2010, utilized tree nut production equaled 5.83 billion dollars, an increase of 40 percent from 2009. And 2011 is expected to be even bigger for some nuts!

Forecasters are predicting that California’s almond production this year will be a record-breaking 1.95 million meat pounds. California is the country’s dominate almond grower since the trees favor warm climates with relatively mild winters. California’s chillier-than-usual winter and cold spring led to a longer bloom period for this year’s crop, and almond lovers are poised to reap the benefits.

Second to almonds in American — really Californian — production are walnuts. Production of the recently anointed heart-healthy walnut is expected to decrease slightly, just four percent, from 2010’s 503,000 tons. Considering that 2010 was a record-breaking year, that’s not too shabby. However, walnut farmers aren’t completely out of the woods. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, like rain delaying and threatening the harvest, a new danger has emerged: grand-theft walnut!

Remember that shaking and drying process? Well, the drying process leaves the walnuts vulnerable to theft. Walnut-theft reports are on the rise in many California communities. On the black market — or to unquestioning local vendors — a pound of walnuts sells for 50 cents to a dollar.

Pecan pie lovers need to start hoping for some rain. Unlike almonds and English walnuts, which are predominantly harvested in California, pecans are harvested across the country, with Georgia, Texas and New Mexico being the top producers. The drought in those areas could have repercussions on this year’s pecan harvest. According to the USDA, the Texas industry is already reporting a harvest more than 40 percent below last year’s. Top producer Georgia is expected to hold steady with last year’s numbers — which was an off-year.

To end our nut report on a more upbeat note, Oregon’s hazelnuts are rebounding this year and are expected to produce a crop 46 percent bigger than last year’s. This year’s crop will even be above the five-year average.

Support America’s Farmers

Now that we’re all up to date on the state of America’s tree farmers and their crops, head out to your local fall harvest festival with joy in your heart and a little money in your pocket. Your belly will thank you for the fresh-from-the-farm treats and the local economy will thank you, too. And don’t forget to give your own thanks — to the trees! Without their hard work, our grocery stores would lack most of our favorite fall fruits and nuts.

Credit: Kate Hopkins

Credit: Stefan, DailyInvention