This year’s edition of the Apple Harvest Festival — an annual three-day event held on the first weekend of October popularly referred to as “Applefest” — brought locals and Cornellians together in the shadow of a difficult harvest to celebrate one of New York State’s most prized exports — apples.
Taking place on the Ithaca Commons and adjacent portions of Cayuga Street, the festival featured local businesses selling a variety of handmade products and apple-related goods. This comes in the wake of an extraordinarily weak apple crop due to temperature and drastic weather fluctuations in the late winter and early spring of 2023, which resulted in unseasonably late frosts.
“A staple of the Northeast is that we have a massive amount of apples — [but] sadly not this year, because the May frost killed a lot of the crops,” Holland-Bavis said. “So I think that makes it even more important that we’re all here invest[ing] in these businesses because they are struggling, especially the ones who make their living based upon apple sales and apple production. It’s pretty much diminished this year.”
Some orchards reported massive declines in crop production this year. Indian Creek Farm, a popular apple-picking destination for Cornell students, lost over 90 percent of this year’s crop according to its newsletter, while Littletree Orchards owner Amara Steinkraus told The Sun the orchard lost their entire crop. Steinkraus said the loss of their crop forced Littletree to buy apples from other orchards to press cider and produce other items like apple cider doughnuts, for which they operate a popular stand every year at Applefest.
“Logistically, it’s crazy because we’re not set up to [import apples]. Normally we grow everything that we use,” Steinkraus said. “And so this year working with another farm to bring in apples, we’ve had to coordinate when we’re going to get apples, they’re not always the same varieties that we would grow. […] It’s been a lesson in adaptability and being able to flow with the obstacles of life, which is part of being a small business career and a farmer especially.”
Although this year’s edition of Applefest fell on the same weekend as Cornell’s Homecoming festivities, vendors and organizers found turnout higher than normal — potentially due to increase in students and alumni in Ithaca this weekend to watch the game.
“With how busy Friday and Saturday were, and now [Sunday], it won’t surprise me if this is an all time attendance record,” said Ben Sandburg M.P.A. ’17, the executive director of the History Center in Tompkins County and a board member and chair of special events for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.
Aleshia Akers, an executive assistant at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and event organizer, said she noticed Cornellians of all ages exploring Applefest’s offerings with their families.
“I’ve seen a lot of family groups, all in their Cornell garb,” Akers said. “So I think folks that are doing some of the Homecoming activities are making their way downtown as well. We are seeing a lot of Cornell pride down here.”
Steinkraus concurred with Akers, saying she saw many students come down to Applefest after Saturday’s Homecoming game.
“A lot of people came in like Cornell regalia with tattoos. It seemed like — comparatively — there were a lot of people in Cornell swag throughout the weekend, especially yesterday but even today,” Steinkraus said on Sunday.
Mary Holland-Bavis, the event and program manager at the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce and one of the organizers of Applefest, shared insights about the event’s enduring significance and nostalgic appeal.
“I think that the biggest thing about [Applefest] is that folks love coming from all over, especially Cornell and IC alums — they always remember Applefest as one of their first memories and events here,” Holland-Bavis said in an interview with The Sun. “There’s a nostalgic element to it.”
Adam Skiadas, the owner of B&B Kettle Korn, said he enjoyed the energy patrons brought to Applefest.
“I just like [Apple Fest] because it’s so busy. Sometimes it’s just a lot of energy on the streets,” Skiadas said. “It can get a little hectic with us here, but it makes time go by pretty fast and at the end of the day we do pretty well.”
Holland-Bavis said the festival’s lively atmosphere brings back memories of the pre-pandemic days on the Commons.
“Everything after the pandemic has shifted a little bit, but I think that [Applefest] feels really similar to what [the Commons] has been in the past. It’s exciting for a lot of people who remember it that way, to see the Commons bustling again,” Holland-Bavis said. “There’s still so many empty storefronts out here, and there’s been some challenges, so it’s really nice to make it lively down here again and have people remember why they love it so much.”
But as the line for doughnuts stretched out into Home Dairy Alley and Littletree’s workers pressed doughnuts fresh out of the fryer — sold for a dollar each — into eagerly awaiting hands, Steinkraus, whose mother helped organize the first Applefest 41 years ago, reminisced on the Applefests of years past while expressing gratitude for the orchards that helped Littletree with its products this year.
“It’s really interesting to see how it’s evolved over the years, the new incarnations, the new pieces that have been brought in and how big it’s grown,” Steinkraus said.