Fruit farmers wait anxiously as weather warms

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Fruit farmers in southwest Michigan are nervous about weather fluctuations this year, but they won’t know for weeks if crops will suffer much damage.

Ideal weather varies depending on the fruit and even where in the state it’s growing, agriculture experts say. But in southwest Michigan, where some crops are developing quicker than elsewhere, the next few weeks could be pivotal as farmers anxiously wait to see if temperatures will fluctuate from the current “holding pattern,” said Dave Trinka, vice president of agriculture research at MBG Marketing, a cooperative for blueberry growers.

Some fruit growers worry a warm spell in the next couple weeks followed by a cold snap will harm the plants.

“We’re a little concerned,” said Mark Longstroth, an expert on blueberries and other bush fruits with MSU Extension in southwest Michigan.

Longstroth said blueberry bushes can handle temperatures down to 10-15 degrees without being harmed. Because they lie dormant during the winter, unseasonably warm days in January didn’t hurt the plants because they still haven’t budded. The same goes for apples and peaches, experts say. It’s only after buds have already developed on fruit trees that a cold snap could injure them.

It’s still too early to tell how fruit crops will fare this year, said Kevin Robson, a Michigan Farm Bureau horticulture expert. Other apple and blueberry experts say they’re not concerned.

“We still need another couple of weeks to get closer to that mid-march timeframe,” Robson said, although some growers are “kind of on the edge of their seat.”

Farmers have always kept a keen eye on the weather, but have watched anxiously after unseasonably warm weather in 2012 devastated cherry and other crops. It was the worst year on record for Michigan cherry production, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a terrible year for apples and peaches, too, as cold snaps killed fruit buds after early warmth.

That year, farmers endured two weeks in mid-March that saw highs in the 80s and overnight lows in the 70s, causing rapid growth that was devastated by a following cold snap. Robson said farmers are waiting to see what the next few weeks have in store.

“We are nervous and so we’re pretty thankful that it’s cooling off,” Longstroth said. “Because if the temperature gets down around freezing, that stops them and they quit growing. We’re just hoping that it stays cool.”

Michigan leads the nation in blueberry and cherry production; farmers grow more than one-third of all U.S. blueberries and 70-75 percent of the nation’s tart cherries and 20 percent of sweet cherries.

Apples “are one of the largest and most valuable fruit crops grown in Michigan,” where the industry has an annual $800 million economic impact, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Some 7.5 million apple trees dot the state across 900 different farms where workers harvested 985 million pounds of apples in 2011. About 60 percent of Michigan apples are processed into products such as apple sauce, juice, cider or vinegar.

Farmers often plant fruit trees on top of hills, Longstroth said. So some peach growers worry about “calm, clear conditions” that could cool air that hurts crops as it “flows downhill like molasses.”

There’s still the potential for crop damage, but farmers haven’t seen it yet, said Bill Shane, another researcher with MSU’s Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center outside Benton Harbor.

“It’s all a matter of what we have after this point,” he said. “The mild winter is what has us believe that there are a lot of (peach) buds out there,” and they’re “in good shape” so far.

For apples, all signs point to good health, said Amy Irish-Brown, another MSU Extension educator.

Apple crops were still lying dormant when recent warm weather struck. The trees need about 800-1,000 “chill hours” during the winter before they can start flowering, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

“Temperatures may have warmed into the 60s for a few days, but not for long enough to ‘wake up’ the trees,” Smith said. “Also, nights have remained cold, and the trees have accumulated the appropriate number of chill hours, keeping things on track for a normal spring.”

Farmers are a bit like the crops, awaiting those first weeks of spring.

“Unfortunately there’s not a grower in the state of Michigan … that can control what Mother Nature has in store for us,” Robson said.

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein