Jun 13, 2012
Spring freezes leave small crop, more questions

An early spring followed by freeze events in March and April did significant damage to fruit crops in the Midwest and East. As of May, the industry was still waiting to see how much fruit would stick.

East

In New York state, it was too early to say how much fruit was lost, said Susan Brown, an apple breeder with Cornell University. While there was damage, growers in certain areas and those that used helicopters and/or wind machines did much better than others.

“I keep on hearing reports that there is more fruit than we first thought, which is great to hear,” she said. “Our research blocks got hit hard, but we are still seeing some viable late bloom on trees, so the timing of it was crucial.”

The southern half of Pennsylvania fared better than the northern half, but there was still some damage, said Carolyn McQuistion, president of the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania.

“Things look variable in different parts of the state,” she said. “On my farm, the lower spots got hit where I didn’t have frost control. We still have a fair amount of fruit. Peaches seemed to have come through very well.”

The southeastern part of the state is looking pretty good. This is great news, she said, given what they went through last year with flooding and storms.

Ontario apple growers lost roughly 80 percent of their crop due to the April freezes, according to reports published by Postmedia Networks, a Canadian news organization. Postmedia Networks estimated financial losses at more than $100 million for the season. Growers also reported losses in peaches and other tree fruits.

Midwest

Terry Sorenson president, Wisconsin Cherry Growers Association, said this year is the worst he’s seen. The previous “benchmark” bad season was 2008, when growers packed 600,000 pounds of cherries from Door Country, where most of Wisconsin’s cherries are grown. They expected 12 million pounds this year, but after talking to processors, Sorenson said they would be lucky to reach half of the 2008 total.

“We’ll see what sets from the few flowers that were viable after the freeze,” he said. “It wasn’t just the temperature. We didn’t have good weather for pollination, either.”

Apples in Wisconsin didn’t fare much better. The king bloom died on most of the trees, although some side blooms may have survived, Sorenson said.

“Those are just coming into pollination now, so we might have some kind of an apple crop with growers who diversified with apples.”

It is a tough blow to growers who were coming off a bad season last year, when the state went through a long drought period and high winds and hailstorms damaged crops.
This year started out looking good, but a freeze event on March 26 wiped away that hope, Sorenson said. The temperature dropped to 26˚ F, and there was an 8 mile-per-hour wind.

“Normally, we would have made it through that,” he said. “For some reason, we didn’t. We ended up with a 70 to 90 percent loss.”

Sorenson said growers in Wisconsin and Michigan were seeking disaster relief funds through the Cherry Marketing Institute.

Michigan was also hit hard. Initial reports indicated a total loss, but regional reports from around the state showed signs of life. Apricots and peaches did not fare well in the southwest, said Bill Shane, an Extension educator with Michigan State University (MSU). There are some tart and sweet cherries growing, but it was too soon to tell how big the crop would be. The same went for apples.

Things were looking grim in the southeast part of the state, said Bob Tritten, MSU Extension educator.

“Apples that were not killed from the last major freeze event of April 29 were very hard to find May 7, making it hard to determine the stage of development or fruit size,” he said. “Most apple blocks have no viable fruit that survived the April 29 freeze event. I have seen a fair amount of newly opened apple blossoms in the last few days. These are tertiary blossoms, or what most growers refer to as ‘rag tag’ bloom.”

Tritten reported that most other tree fruit crops were left with “little to no viable fruit in southeast Michigan.”

Conditions in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, where most of the cherry crop is grown, looked bad as well, said Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.

“Sweet cherries are just coming out of the shuck, and there is a crop,” she said. “But we still don’t know what will stick. Tarts are really, really light, but no numbers yet.”

Mike Rothwell, president of BelleHarvest Sales, a fruit marketing company in Belding, Mich., said he expected some Michigan growers would see an apple crop about 25 percent to 40 percent the size of last year’s crop (which was estimated at 26 million bushels). He also expected to see some frost marks on the fruit they did get.

“We’ll be running this fall, but I’m not sure for how long,” he said. “That 25 to 40 percent seems to be about the best we can hope for. We’ll be packing. I’ll tell you that much!”

Freeze damage was extensive in some areas of Illinois, but not yet fully assessed, said Mosbah Kushad, Extension specialist with the University of Illinois. Damage to the apple crop was more severe in the central and northern counties, where some growers were reporting a near complete loss of most varieties, including Honeycrisp, Golden, and Jonathan.

On a brighter note, peach damage was very light in western Illinois. The only exception came on trees in poorly air-drained areas, Kushad said.

West

It wasn’t just Midwest and Eastern states that saw losses from weather-related events. California growers also experienced loss due to odd spring weather. Hailstorms swept through parts of the state in mid-April, causing massive losses at some farms. That prompted Tim Niswander, agricultural commissioner for Kings County, Calif., to request a USDA disaster declaration for damaged crops. To qualify, farmers must have experienced a 30 percent loss of a particular crop, countywide. According to reports, they met that and then some.

Niswander said there was $20.5 million worth of crop losses in Kings County, with the hardest-hit crop, plums, suffering $5.7 million in damage. Losses to nectarines were nearly as high, at $5.3 million. Additional crops that took a hit include peaches, apricots and cherries.

Washington state apple growers are expecting a full crop, said Todd Fryhover, executive director of the Washington Apple Commission. Washington exported approximately 36 million bushels last season, of a total crop of 109 million bushels. Washington growers are poised to make up any shortages from the East, Fryhover said.

“Our industry will weigh domestic versus export opportunity and take the best economic path for the benefit of the Washington apple grower,” he said. “Clearly, the domestic market is our first priority, exemplifying the least amount of risk. So, our volumes domestically do change from year to year, based upon demand.”

Domestic demand is relatively flat, so any decrease in volume from U.S. producers typically is made up from Washington, since its growers can adjust their export numbers, Fryhover said.

Washington was still in the frost season in early May, and had experienced little damage at that time. Washington growers had a late spring, with colder temperatures and heavy rain. Washington growers expected excellent quality and above-normal quantity (although it was very early to make volume predictions), Fryhover said.

“Our sympathies go out to our fellow apple producers in the East,” he said.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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