(July 29) Eastern apple growers say conditions are ripe for a bountiful crop this year thanks to a more congenial weather pattern in the spring and summer.

Unlike a year ago when New York orchards were hit by a warm spring that forced buds to bloom early, several late frosts and five damaging hail storms, the 2003 growing season has been serene.

"We escaped any unseasonable cold and haven't had any bad weather in any of our three growing regions," said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association Inc., Fishers. "We have an excellent crop on the tree. It's not a limb-breaker, but it's not short either. It's in excellent shape."

Last year's poor weather resulted in the state's smallest season in 29 years. Overall production dropped 32% to 16.2 million bushels, and fresh product fell 26% to 7.4 million bushels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We're back on track with a good old-fashioned crop and a big rebound from last year's harvest," said Allen. "The fruit this year looks gorgeous."

Prices last year opened at $14 for 12, 3-pound film bag cartons of macintosh in mid-September and stayed at that level through the fall, reported the USDA.

Growers are reporting very good quality of apples and equally good size.

"We've had some cool nights so color should be good and size should be good," said Ian Merwin, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Ithaca, N.Y. "We've had twice the normal rainfall the last couple of months, so pest control has been a minor issue. But in general, pest pressure has been low."

The crop looks so good that the apple association estimated this year's apple crop at 24 million bushels, which would be a 48% increase over 2002. The USDA will release its state and national crop forecasts in early August, and the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., will announce its figures later in the month.

"Most everybody I've spoken to says if it's 22 million (bushels) it will be a lot," said Lee Peters, vice president of marketing and sales at Fowler Farms, Wolcott, N.Y. "Even that would be a big improvement over last year. Of course, we've had crops as large as 26 million in New York too."

Peters said harvest of Fowler Farms' 2,000 acres of apples will begin the third week of August with jerseymacs, followed by paula red and ginger red varieties in late August. Shipments of gala and McIntosh will begin in September.