LEBANON -- El Nino is the apple of Ron Irons' eye.
The massive weather system that has wreaked havoc across the globe has been a blessing for Ohio apple farmers like Mr. Irons. El Nino brought a mild, but moist winter to most of the state, enabling apple trees to remain healthy and productive.
And thanks to a trouble-free spring, experts predict a bumper crop this fall.
"It looks like pretty much a full crop," said Mr. Irons, a third-generation fruit farmer on Stubb Mill Road near Lebanon. "It looks pretty good all over the state."
So good, in fact, that a past president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Society thinks 1998 could yield one of the state's largest apple harvests.
"We have an extremely full crop," said Dano Simmons, past president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Society. He has a 200-acre apple orchard near Youngstown. "We're putting on our first thinning sprays because there is such a large crop at our orchard."
Dave Gress, general manager of the state's Fruit Growers Marketing Association, said this year's yield could be 2.8 million to 3 million bushels, about 700,000 more bushels than in 1997. "I wouldn't term it a bumper crop. I don't think we're going to be beyond that 3 million."
The state's potential total apple crop is about 3 million bushels a year, Mr. Gress said. The co-op in Newcomerstown, about an hour south of Akron - Canton, wholesales about 40 percent of the apples grown in Ohio. Though there will be more apples this year, Mr. Gress said he doesn't expect a noticeable increase in the price consumers pay for the fruit.
"Everything we deal with, as far as the growing end, just costs us more money," he said. "I don't think you're going to see a lot of difference in retail cost changes."
Back in Warren County, Myron Baker, 82, works the apple orchards his dad settled in 1903 in Morrow.
Sitting in an old wooden barn crammed with 50 years of machinery and tools, Mr. Baker said he expects his 20-acre grove of apple trees to have a good season.
"I'd say it's going to be a little higher than average," he said.
In addition to offering pick-your-own, Mr. Baker sells apples to Cincinnati bakeries such as Servatii, Busken and Bonnie Lynn. He makes and sells apple cider and in the fall maintains a country store. "We get big crowds here on Sundays," said Myron's wife, Lois.
In Clermont County just east of Milford, Dan and Donna Rouster of Rouster's Apple House are watching their 18 acres of apple trees bloom.
"The apple crop's great," Mr. Rouster said. "I would say overall, we're in pretty good shape. The apples are set on the trees." Farmers, who grow nervous during cold spring nights that could freeze their crop, said those worries are behind them for this year. The growers' optimism is in sharp contrast to last year, when an April cold snap all but wiped out Ohio's apple crop. "Last year, we just didn't have any," said Mr. Baker, who bought apples to fill orders.