Farmers Wary As Record April Temps Bring Early Blooms – And Potential Heartbreak
If you drive to the Old Mission Peninsula, you will see an amazing sight in April: apricot trees are already in full bloom, and bright buds appear on apple and cherry trees. Record temperatures in early April left the fruit trees in the region weeks ahead of schedule for spring growth. Now farmers are preparing for freezing temperatures (or even chilly temperatures that could prevent the bees from pollinating) and the possible loss of crops that could occur, particularly with tart cherry trees.
Traverse City set several records for high temperatures in early April, according to Faith Fredrickson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gaylord. “On the seventh we set a new record of 83 degrees and on the eighth of 82 degrees,” she says. “That would have been about 30 degrees or more above normal for Traverse City. The low on the seventh was 48 degrees when it was normal 29. Especially at the warmer lows, this can help things really get into the re-growth zone. “
According to Dr. Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center and co-owner of Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, these temperatures actually signaled that fruit trees should grow. “Some growers think (the trees) are two to four weeks early,” says Rothwell. “The concern is obvious that because we are so early … when the plants get out of control they are more and more susceptible to negative temperatures. Here we see the problem of potential damage. “
The further away a fruit bud is – especially in the flowering phase when the reproductive parts of the plant are exposed – the more likely it is that it will be damaged if it is damaged by frost, explains Rothwell. This is a particularly high risk when flowers appear in early April. Weeks to go before Northern Michigan is no longer in danger of freezing. “The final frost date for Traverse City is May 17th, so we still have a long way to go,” says Rothwell. Apricot trees that are already in full bloom could suffer significant damage this year, as could other tender trees like peaches.
As for the region’s main fruit crops – cherries (both hot and sweet), apples and grapes – farmers religiously monitor temperatures and control the orchards during this crucial final stretch well into May.
“I probably check the weather forecast between April 15 and May 15 more than the other eleven months of the year combined,” says Isaiah Wunsch of Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula. The temperatures in Wunsch’s orchards have dropped to 26 to 27 degrees this week – a clear danger zone for fruit trees. “We may have had severe damage to the tart cherry blocks,” he says, adding that of the trees his team examined, “every flower that developed was frozen.” Wish says that 15 to 20 percent of the viable blossoms of sweet cherries can also be damaged, although these trees are usually harder than hot cherries.
Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley, who sources fruit from Old Mission and Antrim Counties, is now working with his growers on apple tree evaluation. Ulbrich also plans to test the grape buds for “obvious signs” of damage over the weekend. “Right now the vines are going from dormant to growing, so the vines are full of water,” he says. “They lose their winter hardiness as spring develops and they pass. Our fear of cold spring temperatures is that the sap will freeze and damage the internal structure of the plant. 25 degrees is a general breaking point for the current situation. We probably avoided this, but the buds may have been damaged in certain strains and microclimates. “
Rothwell and the rest of the MSU team are working to give farmers clearer answers about which temperature ranges are damaging certain crops. A new research project uses programmable freezers that gradually lower the temperatures on closed fruit buds, with the buds removed and cut open every two hours to see at what point the damage begins. With Honeycrisp apples, for example, employees saw no damage to the buds at 26.6 and 24.8 degrees, minor damage at 23.9 degrees and significant damage at 21.2 degrees. “That was hugely helpful data because a lot of the information we think is old-fashioned information,” says Rothwell. These data suggest that local Honeycrisp trees are likely to hold up this week, despite the low temperatures in the area. Wish confirms that he’s not as worried about apples as other fruit trees right now.
Even if local fruit growers can escape frost damage before summer, another “glove” is still waiting, says Wunsch. “During flowering, each flower needs to be pollinated in order to develop into a piece of fruit,” he says. “Honey bees do not fly or are normally inactive at temperatures below 55 ° C. I think the big challenge we have to face in the next few weeks is getting trees to release flowers as they warm up in April regardless of the current temperatures and I’m worried about whether we have a good window for pollination. “Fruit trees could survive the risk of frost damage only to not produce fruit without visits from bees during the short pollination window. Early warm temperatures could also have caused some pests to hibernate without being killed by the cold – another factor that the agribusiness is closely monitoring, according to Rothwell.
If this all sounds like a fruit minefield, the farmers are blunt: this is it. And it’s a problem that could get worse in the coming years due to climate change as unpredictable weather patterns – early springs, random late freezes, and wetter summers – devastate the orchards. “These issues will put producers at higher risk because they can do everything right, and if a freeze event occurs there is nothing they can do about it,” says Rothwell. “It’s getting harder and harder to grow fruit in Michigan. There is crop insurance and diversification, but there is no silver bullet. “
Wish agrees that the challenges are real, and diversification is one of the few practical solutions for farmers to try to stay sustainable. If tart cherries fail this year, crop insurance payouts will be based on past values - not an attractive scenario as tart cherry prices have fallen in recent years. Wunsch says while farmers in Willamsburg or Leelanau may be able to hold on to it due to lower land costs that keep overheads low in bad years, he no longer considers it economically viable to grow hot cherries on Old Mission. “All of our new plants over the past five years have been honeycrisp apples and sweet cherries,” he says. “We have also started to diversify our sweet cherries. We look for varieties that may flower later or have earlier or later ripening dates so we can diversify our harvest dates. “
The goal, so Wunsch, is to plan the reality of irregular weather events – like the heavy rains in Traverse City in spring and fall of 2020 – by ensuring that not every single harvest is prone to the same disaster at the same time. “While our risk of losing 20 percent of the crop in a given year might be higher,” he says of diversification, “we won’t lose 100 percent of the crop.”