The Apple Farming Cycle · 5:45am
Introduction: The most famous agricultural product of Ponyville is apples, and a family of apple farmers figure importantly in MLP:FIM. So I thought it would be interesting to explore the topic of apple farming. Some of this information might be useful in writing fanfics involving Sweet Apple Acres and/or the Sweet Apple Acres Siblings.
I. Apple Trees: Apples, of course, are the fruit of apple trees. Apple trees (malus domestica) are deciduous trees (which means they lose and regrow their leaves every year) in the wild rose family. The tree originated in Central Asia (Eastern Turkey on Human-Earth, one of the regions where Honey Tongue and Noble Rose wind up visiting on the Quest of the Sun Mare on Equestrian-Earth) where its wild ancestor (malus sieversii) is still found today.
The trees are large if grown from seed, but small if grafted onto roots ("rootstock"). A Human-Earth apple tree stands 6-15' tall in cultivation and up to 39' in the wild. Size, shape and branch density in cultivation are determined by method of trimming.
Blossoms are produced in spring simultaneously with the budding of the leaves, and are produced on spurs and some long shoots. The 1.2" to 1.6" flowers are white with a pink tinge that gradually fades, five petaled, with an inflorescence consisting of a cyme with 4–6 flowers. The central flower of the inflorescence is called the "king bloom"; it opens first, and can develop a larger fruit.
There are ~ 7500 known cultivars of apples on Human-Earth, and probably at least as many on Equestrian-Earth, where an ancient monomaniacal clan has been assiduously breeding them for at least four millennia -- we must assume that many of the more delicate apple-cultivars of the Age of Wonders perished in the Cataclysm -- but only to the extent that those Apples who survived the global disasters couldn't prevent it).
Apples are extreme heterozygotes and do not breed true when planted from seeds (this is of immense advantage in resisting disease in the wild, as they can rapidly micro-evolve to defeat parasites). Hence, most new cultivated apple trees are produced by grafting (that's why most of the trees on Sweet Apple Acres are fairly small).
Serious apple fanatics farmers (like the Sweet Apple Acre Apples) would also grow some from seeds to experiment with new varieties. Distinguishing which grafts came from which donors would be very important in developing new varieties, which is why the Sweet Apple Acres Apples name and know personally many of their most favored trees. A successful new variety could be of immense competitive advantage, and you can be sure that Granny Smith has developed many of them.
Apple trees can't self-fertilize; they must be cross-pollinated. The usual pollinators are bees (and now you know why Applejack is perfectly comfortable working with them). Honey bees are the most common pollinators in cultivated apples. Note well; fertilization must occur for the fruit to develop, which is why this is vital even if you're not trying to breed new varieties. The required apiary may be kept on the orchard, or brought in for hire by a beekeeper.
There are four to seven pollination groups in apples, depending on climate (with some samples):
Group A – Early flowering, 1 to 3 May in England (Gravenstein, Red Astrachan)
Group B – 4 to 7 May (Idared, McIntosh)
Group C – Mid-season flowering, 8 to 11 May (Granny Smith, Cox's Orange Pippin)
Group D – Mid/late season flowering, 12 to 15 May (Golden Delicious, Calville blanc d'hiver)
Group E – Late flowering, 16 to 18 May (Braeburn, Reinette d'Orléans)
Group F – 19 to 23 May (Suntan)
Group H – 24 to 28 May (Court-Pendu Gris - also called Court-Pendu plat)
One cultivar can be pollinated by a compatible cultivar from the same group or close (A with A, or A with B, but not A with C or D).
Varieties are sometimes classified by the day of peak bloom in the average 30-day blossom period, with pollenizers selected from varieties within a 6-day overlap period.
(from "Apple - Pollination" on Wikipedia)
Some cultivars, if left unpruned, will grow very large, which allows them to bear much more fruit, but makes harvesting very difficult. Depending on the tree density (number of trees planted per unit surface area), mature trees typically bear 40–200 kg (88–441 lb) of apples each year, though productivity can be close to zero in poor years. Apples are harvested using three-point ladders that are designed to fit amongst the branches. Trees grafted on dwarfing rootstocks will bear about 10–80 kg (22–176 lb) of fruit per year.
Crops ripen at different times of the year according to the variety of apple. Varieties that yield their crop in the summer include Gala, Golden Supreme, McIntosh, Transparent, Primate, Sweet Bough, and Duchess; fall producers include Fuji, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Chenango, Gravenstein, Wealthy, McIntosh, Snow, and Blenheim; winter producers include Winesap, Granny Smith, King, Wagener, Swayzie, Greening, and Tolman Sweet.
(from "Apple - Harvest" on Wikipedia)
I will point out first that the Apples don't need no stinking three-point ladders to harvest, since they can applebuck -- more on that in section III. They might still need ladders for pruning and thinning, though, as I doubt that even Applejack can be that precise with her back-kicks. And any unskilled hooves they hire on for a harvest might need the ladders. (And be much less productive, which is why AJ and Mac prefer to do that part of it themselves).
The most common real pests that afflict apple trees are mildew (which destroys the flowers, and may be dealt with either by changing the conditions which enable the mildew to grow or burning the infected plants (the last is something the Apples would hate to do); aphids (insects which suck out the plant juices with their needle-like mouthparts); and apple scab, a fungus which withers the leaves and fruits. Other diseases include fireblight (a bacterial infestation which can destroy a whole orchard if allowed to spread unchecked) and note this is indigenous to North America; rust (a fungus which attacks the fruit); black spot (a fungus which attacks the leaves); codling moths and apple maggots. Human-Earth apple trees are raided by deer (we don't know if the sapient Deer on Equestrian-Earth ever do this) and mice (probably true on Equestrian-Earth as well).
II. Agricultural Cycle
Here is the cycle of an apple orchard about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, in relatively warm dry country:
Pruning: rids the trees of unproductive wood and promotes new growth in the coming season. The trees are dormant in the winter.
Tilling: the centers of the tree rows must be kept tilled in order to maximize water absorption.
Rainy Season: Generally at the end of winter / early spring.
Bloom-Time: The apple blossoms begin to set. Lasts over 6 weeks. During this time the tree is most susceptible to disease and frost damage. The trees must be treated with nutrients to help maintain their health. After the blossoms have fallen, the fruit begins to grow.
Late May to Late June:
Thinning: Apples, at their youngest age of formation are about the size of a cherry seed. Once the apples have reached around 3/4" in diameter, thinning begins. This is clipping out the smaller fruit and eliminating large clusters. The point is to direct all the growth toward the larger and healthier fruit.
Weeding: It's important to maintain a clean and weed-free orchard so that work, particularly harvesting, is easy.
Watering: Water is applied around 3 times/week to the orchard. Watering is exceedingly important for the health of the tree and the quality and size of the fruit.
Sizing: The fruit begins to size rapidly; more nutrients are applied to maintain optimal health.
Late July- Early August:
Preparations: For the harvest and sales season.
Mid or Late August to Early November:
Harvest: Starts with Gala variety, fresh apples available during this whole period. At the end of the harvest, it's winter and the cycle begins again.
III. Analysis With Regard to Sweet Apple Acres
First of all, I notice that the show mostly depicts the harvest and sale of the apples, rather than the more boring stages of cultivating the trees. That's understandable. Actually (don't let AJ know I said this, she'd never forgive me) apple farming is a rather quiet though industrious occupation most of the time. You grow trees, you make sure they have the right amount of water and fertilizer, and you protect them from harm. Then, you harvest and sell the apples. Repeat each year.
Of course, given where Sweet Apple Acres is located, "protect them from harm" may include from everything ranging from destructive but non-dangerous animals like the Vampire Fruit Bats to wandering Timber Wolves to Discord's old forgotten agronomy projects. So maybe I'm making this sound more boring than it is. But then the Apples probably like "boring," as opposed to the alternate possibilities ranging from fireblight-on-steroids to monsters attacking from the Everfree.
Secondly, I notice that Sweet Apple Acres seems to have a very long harvest season. But then, (1) they probably cultivate many varieties, since they're specialists in apple farming, (2) they're in a warm climate (the river between Ponyville and the Everfree seems to be the boundary between a warm temperate and a semi-tropical climate), (3) they benefit both from agricultural and meteorological magic and (4) they are very good apple farmers. Some real apple varieties are ready for harvest by late summer, so it's not such a stretch to imagine that the Apples might not have some sorts of fast-growing apples which ripen in July or even late June, given the aforementioned factors.
Thirdly, the long harvest season cuts both ways. It means lots of production for the Acres (and in the case of fast-growing varieties they may be able to bring in two harvests a year!) but it also means lots of work for the Apples. Harvesting is generally one of the most intense labors that any farmer has to accomplish, and note that the nature of orchards and trees mean that planting is done at a more leisurely pace than if they were growing, say, corn. (There is some evidence that the Apples also grow some non-apple products, but only on a small scale; so there is much less need for pony-hours on those crops).
Fourthly, applebucking. Real horses can applebuck, but not with the precision displayed by the Apples. The applebucking displayed by the Apples is best understood as Earth Pony magic; specifically biokinesis directed through the hooves in a manner analogous to the way that a Unicorn telekineses through her horn or a Pegasus generates her flightfield through her wings. Applebucking helps the Apples a lot, because it lets them harvest much faster, particularly because they can actually drop most of the apples into the containers they use to transport them.
Fifthly, now I truly understand this song "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time." They're singing of a hoped-for wedding in May, in lovely romantic apple farming country. And this is now officially one of the songs that Sweetie Belle makes famous during the Shadow Wars. Of course, specifically because so many of the ones who promised to do this didn't know if they were actually going to be able to come back home to fulfill their promise (the same reason why the Andrews Sisters songs were popular in World War II).
Conclusion: I hope you all find this research useful. It's given me some story ideas, anyway.