Fruit farmers fret with snow-covered orchards

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 April 2021 at 11:56 am

Buds of trees in sensitive stage after warm start to spring

Provided photos: These peach trees at Hurd Orchards are in the blossom stage and now covered in snow.

The snow-covered landscape today in Orleans County is more than an annoyance for local fruit growers, who are concerned their crop of cherries, peaches, apples and other fruit could be damaged from the cold temperatures.

Fruit growers are hopeful they will get by without significant damage, because the temperatures aren’t expected to go below 28 degrees where there can start to be damage.

These apple buds at Kast Farms are just breaking out of the tight cluster stage, where they are more vulnerable to cold temperatures.

Although the snow-covered orchards is a scary sight for fruit growers, the bigger worry is tonight with how low the temperatures will go and for how long, said Craig Kahlke, a fruit specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Lake Ontario Fruit Program.

If it drops to 28 for about 4 hours, growers can expect a 10 percent loss in the crop. Dropping to 25 degrees in the full blossom stage could result in a 90 percent loss, according to Michigan State University which has developed a chart of critical spring temperatures during bud development.

Kahlke has worked as a local fruit specialist for 14 years. He recalled 2012 when half of the fruit crop was wiped out when freezing temperatures killed buds in early May.

He doesn’t expect the snow today and cold later tonight to do much damage. But he worries the buds still have two or three more weeks of being vulnerable to the cold.

It hit 80 on one March day and locally there have been other days in the 70s. That has the fruit trees more advanced than normal with their budding stages. Many of the apples trees broke bud in late March, Kahlke said, when there are still several weeks remaining where the weather could drop to damaging freezing levels.

Amy Machamer, co-owner of Hurd Orchards, said she is concerned for the crop, but remains hopeful. Last year, the temperatures dropped to dangerous cold in early May and on Mother’s Day. She thought the crop would be significantly diminished but Hurd Orchards had a full crop in nearly everything.

“We are hoping beyond hope that that kind of mini miracle will be the reality for 2021,” Machamer said.

If the buds aren’t damaged, Machamer said there is also the worry that the blossoms may not get properly pollinated due to the snow.

Machamer said the temperatures don’t affect the orchards and farmland uniformly.

“There are micro-micro climates,” she said.

There can be pockets with slight temperature variances, and a contrast by even a couple degrees can make a huge difference in damage.

“It’s not a one size fits all,” she said. “And there are different varieties at different stages. It’s certainly scary but hopefully it will be OK.”

Brett Kast of Kast Farms in Gaines was nervous with the snow last night, but felt better the temperature didn’t drop below 30.

“28 is the magic number (when there can be damage),” he said. “Tonight will be a cold one and that is a concern.”

He also was encouraged checking the orchards and spotted a bee out looking to pollinate despite the cold.

The snow could benefit the sensitive peach blossoms by providing some insulation with expected low temperatures tonight.