How odd weather is hurting New York fruit growers

Apr 24, 2012

The apple crop in New York is the second-largest in the country, behind only Washington State. Cherries, peaches, apricots and grapes are also big business in New York.

But this year, New York fruit growers are suffering through an especially uncertain time.

Warm weather in March, followed quickly by a very cold spell, and then a freak snowstorm Monday, have put the harvest in jeopardy.

“We’ll know in a couple of weeks, after the flowering has finished,” says Eric Shatt, manager of Cornell University’s orchards. “The fruitlets should be starting to form. We’ll either see them forming or we won’t.”

Shatt says Sunday night’s snowstorm isn’t actually a big worry, since the snow on the flowers is only about 32 degrees.

“The damage has been done,” says Shatt. “When we had the nights in the 20s, that was when we had severe damage to the flower.”

If the temperature stays above 25 degrees, there could be an adequate apple harvest this year, about 50 percent of the maximum crop yield. But if it falls below 25, then there could be problems.

“In a bad situation, we’ll have ten percent,” Shatt says. “And that ten percent will be mostly deformed apples that will have to go to cider.”

Other fruits

In New York, apple is king. But, according to Cornell professor and New York State Horticultural Society board member Terence Robinson, there has been a movement towards growing a wider variety of fruit.

“We’ve been trying to get people to diversify a little bit with these other fruit species,” says Robinson. “And there’s been some recent trend towards some diversification.”

Among those other fruit trees, cherries are facing a much more dire situation this spring.

Cherry trees bloom earlier than many apple varieties, and their flowers were more exposed during the March cold spell.

Robinson says those early cherries were the first to show signs of damage. He says farmers already have an indication that the cherry harvest will be hit hard.

“Some growers believe they have maybe too little of a crop to harvest,” says Robinson.

He says one of the effects of this year’s unusual weather is that growers who lose most of their cherry crop may decide to only grow apples in the future.

The spring of ’45

Apples have a better chance of weathering the cold.

Besides blooming later, apple trees also produce many more flowers. Relatively few of the flowers need to be pollinated in order to turn a profit.

But this year’s weather could be different.

Tom Kappus, who runs an orchard near Lake Ontario, says recent temperature swings are worse than any he’s seen in his 35 years of farming.

“I’ve heard people tell us there was a year like this in 1945 - but I don’t think it got quite this warm,” says Kappus, who grows both apples and cherries. “That year I think they lost pretty near all the fruit in this area.”

Kappus is still deciding if harvesting cherries, which requires shaking trees with farm equipment, will be worth the trouble this year. He says he’ll find out in a couple weeks if that equipment will stay in the barn.

If it does, and the region’s fruit crop is left to rot, we all may end up paying more for apples and cherries this summer.