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Fruit growers in the eastern United States are assessing the damage and figuring out how to manage what’s left. A series of April freezes have done enormous damage all across the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions.

The Fruit Crop Guesstimate, which will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the afternoon of June 6, will likely be the first occasion for a good look at the overall situation. Because the season is so advanced, June drop will likely occur in May and be done by June 1.

Bottom line, however, there will a lot less fruit in the East this year. Processors, packers, owners of farm markets, are already turning their eyes west, where Washington growers seem poised to have a near-perfect year.

It is not clear whether Michigan or New York was hit hardest, but it’s probably Michigan—and Ontario, located between them, is very badly damaged. Experts in Michigan are saying perhaps only 10 percent of the apples remain. That would cut the crop from about 20 million bushels to 2 million, a number unheard of since 1945, when—oldtimers remember—a similarly warm March set up the crop for destruction by April freezes.

There is great reluctance anywhere to pronounce the crop lost. No one wants to tell the migrant workers not to come—and later find themselves short of help if the crop comes in bigger than pessimists predicted. The economic ripple effects on packers, farm and farmers’ markets, fruit processors, input suppliers, workers, entire communities, will be enormous.

What happened

As the first week of May ended, things weren’t looking good for many of the fruit crops in the eastern United States. A record-breaking warm spell in March—temperatures in the 80s occurring for more than two weeks—brought trees into bloom four to six weeks ahead of normal.

Then April cooled, but several nights of subfreezing temperatures—a cold night or two followed by another cold night or two a week or more later—nibbled away at the fruit crop. Apples of later-blooming varieties or on better sites escaped early freezes only to be whacked by later ones.

The weekend starting Friday, April 27, may have been the final straw. Whether it broke the apple crop or not is still in question, but it certainly broke a lot of growers’ spirits. It snowed in New York and Pennsylvania the last week of April, and temperatures fell to 23 degrees even on the protected slopes near Lake Ontario in western New York and Ontario.

Michigan

While many experts were still saying, “it’s too early to say for sure,” and “don’t give up on the eastern fruit crop yet,” others were saying the crop is mostly gone. Michigan may have lost as much as 90 percent of its apples, peaches, tart and sweet cherries, and juice grapes.

 “The two weeks of June weather we had in March was the real kicker,” said Mark Longstroth, the extension fruit educator in southwest Michigan. “We had apricots in full bloom on March 17.” Other stone fruits followed that week.

While April weather cooled to about normal, the fruit trees were too advanced to tolerate the freezes. April, Longstroth said, is “the tale of four freezes.” Freezes on April 7 and April 12 really hurt juice grapes, but apples survived. “The freezes on April 27 and April 29 really hammered the apples,” he said.

Still, he said, “don’t give up too soon.” He noted that taller trees, especially sweet cherries, often have fruit higher up, and some growers have noted that apple bloom was later on year-old wood than on older wood. There may be more fruit out there than growers realize, and they need to keep watching.

Longstroth said he was already receiving phone calls from farmers’ markets in Chicago and its suburbs, which have been thriving in recent years, stocked by fresh produce from southwest Michigan.

In Michigan, many farmers’ markets have restricted their vendors from selling any fruit not grown locally or not grown on the vendors’ farms. What will they do this year, Longstroth wondered?

Amy Irish-Brown, the tree fruit educator on Fruit Ridge north of Grand Rapids, wrote on the Michigan State University fruit news Web site May 1:

“The overnight temperatures Friday morning and then again Sunday morning have devastated the tree fruit crops on the Ridge. I spent much of this morning cutting buds in various locations and found very few viable buds in apple, sweet cherry, and peaches. I didn’t check tart cherry or plum, but I would imagine the damage is similar. I feel just terrible that you have to experience this extensive loss, and you are all in my prayers, as you have been since the warm weather back in mid-March.” In northwest Michigan, where half the nation’s tart cherry crop is grown, almost all the Montmorency cherries are gone, according to Nikki Rothwell at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station near Traverse City. Balaton cherries, a sweeter, darker red tart cherry grown on a few acres, survived better, she said.

Sweet cherries are “decent, but not great.” The cool, damp April conditions really encouraged bacterial canker. “There’s nothing a grower can do but prune it out,” she said.

Apples bloom later in northwest Michigan, and the side blossoms were out in early May. King bloom blossoms were mostly gone after the big frost of April 29, Rothwell said.

On sweet cherries, early leaves provided some protection for blossoms, and so did tree size. The tops of sweet cherry trees may have full crops, said Bill Shane, horticulturist at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center in Benton Harbor.

“One good thing about these freezes,” Shane added, “they were not tough on the trees themselves, except for the juice grapes. Even these will push out a new set of leaves. There will be a long summer for tree fruits to grow more leaves and be ready to set a good crop next year.”

The report from Michigan’s branch of the National Agricultural Statistics Services on May 7, summed it up this way:

“Continual frosts throughout April have caused the worst weather damage to fruit in the state in the past half-century. This has been compounded by poor pollination conditions for flowers that were still viable. Many growers are adopting minimal spray programs to protect tree health. The (apple) crop will be well below average size. The tart cherry crop will be very small; many growers will not have enough production to justify harvesting. Sweet cherries were also scarce. The juice grape crop in the southwest has very little potential; damage to wine grapes in the southwest varies by site and stage of development. Wine grape buds in the northwest have not been severely damaged. Most peach varieties have had substantial freeze damage. The pear and plum crops will be small. Blueberries had generally escaped injury, but freezes over the last weekend in April caused widespread damage. That varied greatly by variety and the availability of sprinklers and wind machines.”

New York

 In western New York, extension fruit educator Debbie Breth said, “There’s definitely damage. There are no 30 million bushels of apples in New York this year. Still, we only need 10 to 15 percent of the blossoms to make it to have a full crop. Even in a good year, it’s hard to estimate the crop size. We’re not ready to write it off yet.”

The weather definitely affected the pattern of bloom. “We have all different growth stages. We have blossoms in petal fall with whole clusters in early pink, all on the same branch. It’s just an odd season,” Breth said.

In her Fruit Fax to growers on May 8, she said: “This year intensive scouting block by block is required in all sites and especially in those that suffered six, seven, or even more frost events this spring. There appears to be more damage with Empire, Red Delicious, and Macs. Apparently, these three cultivars are the most hurt this year. Several more cultivars are compromised, but the damage varies site by site. In orchards that went below freezing temperatures, foliage damage can be seen with some necrosis and leaf twisting. Take a walk through your orchards and cut fruit and look for damaged internal parts (damaged fruit are totally black or brown inside). When sampling fruit for damage, check the upper and lower sections of trees as well as the lower parts of each block. Check individual clusters in the upper, medium, and lower parts of your trees, and check spur foliage conditions.”

North Carolina

In the fruit area in Henderson County, North Carolina, extension director Marvin Owings said, “We’ve been hurt, no doubt about it. But it’s spotty, really scattered.”

Apples there were pretty advanced after two weeks of 80-degree weather in March, and then the temperature dropped to 24 to 28 degrees for four to five hours on April 12.

“We had a bumper crop going in peaches, cherries, pears, and apples before the freeze,” Owings said. “Everything was loaded.”

Pennsylvania

In Adams County, Pennsylvania, John Rice at Rice Fruit Company, said, “We’ve very optimistic we will have a good apple crop, bigger than last year.”

Warm weather in March, which really advanced the crop, was followed by a cooler April that slowed things down. “March was warmer than April. April slowed down the process, and we got through April with very little damage,” he said.

On the Penn State Web site, the Fruit Times newsletter was carrying information for apple growers to use to time applications of thinners. Growers are working to implement the carbohydrate balance model called MaluSlim. Growers in Michigan are also, but won’t need it this year.