Costanza Apple Orchard

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Experiencing an apple orchard at harvest time is awesome. The rows of trees are laden with blushing red, bright peach colored and golden apples bunched on branches like roses on a vine.

Costanza Apple Orchard in Belen welcomes visitors and invites you to their special 50th anniversary Harvest Moon celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Margaret Costanza manages Costanza Apple Orchard in Belen, which was started by her mother and father in 1962. She and her five siblings learned the orchard business while growing up.

There will be an apple peeling party starting at 9 a.m. and a Harvest Moon Apple Butter Festival making the savory spread the old fashioned way.

Also, every Saturday in September and October there will be a drawing for bushels of apples, apple-peelers and other prizes. You can register for the drawings at the harvest shed.

The orchard was started in 1962 by Bob Costanza, a general contractor who moved to New Mexico from Pennsylvania in the 1940s.

When a salesman selling orchard trees visited him and his wife, Jackie, on their eight-acre farm in Belen, the Costanzas bought 550 saplings and started a tradition that has endured to this day.

It is a treasure of Valencia County, and is carried on by the couple’s daughter, Margaret Costanza, who learned, with her five siblings, the business of running an orchard while growing up.

Margaret’s brother, Ed, who worked closely with his father for many years, started his own orchard in Edgewood, and helps Margaret whenever she encounters a special problem.

Margaret’s sister, Laura, is a nurse in Pueblo, Colo., but comes home to Belen at harvest time whenever she can. She is visiting this year, not only to help with the harvest, but also to help with the 50th anniversary celebration preparations.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: These freshly harvested Golden Delicious apples sport a pink blush and are crispy and sweet. Costanza Apple Orchard has several varieties of apples including Red Delicious, Gala, Lodi, Macintosh, Arkansas Blacks and others.

The harvest shed and the attached store will be brimming with boxes and bags of assorted apples, nifty apple peelers, jarred honey from the Costanza beehives and other sumptuous products.

It is a great place to hang out, and there is usually someone there slicing apples rings and offering honey samples.

Sitting outside the shed with a view of the orchard is pleasantly relaxing and smells wonderful.

Lush green New Zealand white clover blankets the ground in the orchard, and provides natural nitrogen fertilizer for the fruit trees.

In the breezy shed is the electric conveyer belt with a sorter wheel that separates apples by size for consistency.

Margaret Costanza calls the small apples “School Boys,” because they are the perfect size for young students.

After apples are sorted, they are boxed and stored in a walk-in cooler at 34 degrees to keep them from over-ripening.

Even though shelf life is extended by harvesting apples before maturity, Costanza likes to pick them just slightly past maturity when the flavor sets in, she said.

“The apples you buy at the store have been treated with wax,” Costanza said. “They are kept in a room that has nitrogen pumped in to keep the apples fresh for a year. We don’t do that.”

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Costanza Apple Orchard manager Margaret Costanza, left, watches Pat Huber, right, as she deftly peels apples with the nifty mounted Victorio apple peeler. Every Saturday during September and October, a drawing will be held with prizes such as this apple peeler, and bushels of apples.

While Costanza’s orchard is not certified organic, they use as few chemicals as possible to provide quality apples for customers, she said.

“We have apple maggot, which is a new insect,” Costanza said. “It infiltrated our county two years ago, and it’s a very, very devastating insect. It could wipe out my entire crop.”

They monitor for that insect, a little fruit fly half the size of a common house fly, and use sticky, pheromone treated bug traps to keep abreast of what types of flies are around the orchard.

The apple fruit fly can lay up to 300 eggs, one in each apple, she said. Then the larvae tunnel through the whole apple, making it inedible. They use an organic spray to combat the pest.

“This has been a huge challenge for us, a scarey challenge,” Costanza said. “We had apple maggot damage last year.”

This year, they don’t have much if any apple maggot damage, because they have implemented an integrated pest management program, and monitor every day for both the apple maggot and the coddling moth, which is the common apple worm.

No one had apples last year, because of the February freeze, which caused a lot of damage, she said.

The warm, sunny days raised the sap in the orchard trees, and when the 20 below zero freeze hit, trees were severely damaged and some trees died.

“We call it the Southwest scald,” Costanza said.

The danger and damage doesn’t end with the freeze. Many branches of the tree can be damaged inside, and so it is important to treat the trees during the following spring bloom to decrease fruit production so the branches won’t get too heavy with fruit and break.

The Costanza Apple Orchard also has a wind machine among the trees, which looks like an odd windmill, and keeps cold air from settling on the blooms or new fruit, but it is no match for 20 below temperatures.

Costanza hasn’t had a harvest in two years because of the unusual freezes of the past two years.

So, this year’s harvest is particularly cherished as well as being the benchmark of 50 years in business.

Costanza points to the “beautiful champagne blush” on the golden delicious apples, but all the apples are robust, colorful and healthy.

Harvest time for the different species of apples varies.

The Red Delicious apple harvest starts 144 days from full bloom, and for Galas it’s 122 days from full bloom.

“What you’ll see is, the earlier in the year that they come off, the shorter the shelf life, the later in the year that they’re harvested — like we have Arkansas Blacks that come off in October — they’ll store much longer,” Costanza said.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Costanza Apple Orchard in Belen dries apple rings the old fashioned way on screened drying racks in a greenhouse. Apples are being sliced for drying in preparation for the 50th anniversary and Harvest Moon celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29.

When the apple is ready for harvest, the stems of the apple readily snap off the tree branch. If you don’t know this and pull apples that aren’t ready for picking, you can break the delicate tip of the branch where next year’s apple would have grown.

Granny Smith apples are harvested at the end of September, Arkansas Blacks in October, Lodi apples have a July 1st harvest.

There are also Early Golds, Macintosh, a couple of peach and pear trees, and crab apple trees for cross-pollination.

Costanza also has quelites, a New Mexico favorite. It is a spinach-like green, and grows wild on the property.

“We’ve done an excellent job of quality fruit this year, and we’re very proud,” Costanza said.

Costanza Apple Orchard is located at 05 Padilla Road, off Gabaldon Road, in Belen. You can also visit them on Facebook, at www.costanzaorchard.com or call 864-1621.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.