Fruit farmers assess damage from warm early spring, late freeze

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Fires lit in a snow-covered peach orchard.
Hornyak Farms, in Chardon, Ohio, lit eight fires around its orchard, feeding them with excavators, burned a handful of smudge pots and built an air blast heater mounted on a tractor to run up and down rows of peach trees to try to protect vulnerable peach buds from the cold weather April 21. (Submitted photo)

April 21 was a late night for Hornyak Farms, in Chardon, Ohio. For the second night in a row, snow blanketed the peach trees in the farm’s orchard. The snow provided some insulation, keeping the trees relatively safe for the first night. But April 21 was colder.

“We tried heating the whole orchard,” said Evan Hornyak.

That night, they put out a handful of smudge pots. At some points, they were keeping eight fires going around the orchard, feeding them with the excavator.

They drove around to check thermometers throughout the orchard. When fruit trees are in bloom, you might lose about 10% of a crop if they are at 28 degrees for a half hour. Just a few degrees lower, that figure jumps to 90%.

After unusually warm weather in the early spring, much of Ohio and Pennsylvania, along with other states, were hit hard by a late snow and several nights near or below freezing in late April. Fruit farmers and orchard owners across the state are seeing the impact, but aren’t sure what the full extent of the damage will be yet.

“One to 2 degrees can sometimes be all it takes from total loss to having a crop,” said Ken Metrick, of Metrick’s Harvest View Farm and Market, in Butler, Pennsylvania.

Fighting nature

Since those couple of degrees make a big difference, setting up fires and smudge pots around an orchard, like the Hornyaks did, can help minimize crop loss during late freezes. But that only goes so far.

“To be honest, we were kind of set up for failure,” Hornyak said. “The trees didn’t know any better.”

The early 80-degree days this spring prompted fruit trees to blossom early. Just a couple warm days and nights can push fruit trees to start blossoming.

Metrick said his apple trees are about two or three weeks earlier than usual. An ornamental crab apple tree in the Metrick’s yard is usually a popular spot for pictures for the local prom, which is usually the same weekend as Mother’s Day. But this year, it’s already past bloom.

“That just goes to show you that the season is about two or three weeks ahead,” Metrick said.

That early blossoming makes the trees vulnerable to the cold weather.

“There’s a lot of money hanging on them trees,” Metrick said. “You only get one chance a year. You do the best you can to protect it.”

John Huffman, of Huffman Fruit Farm, put floating row covers over much of his strawberry crop. He knows there is some damage to his apple and trees and strawberries, but he expects to still have good peach and plum crops.

“It’s easy to know there’s damage,” he said. “It’s hard to know how serious the damage is, or what’s left.”

Impact

Some of Metrick’s apple varieties took damage as well. But his farm is at a little bit of an advantage, since it’s high on a hill. The elevation makes a difference with the frost.

“Where we live is what saves us,” he said.

Hornyak isn’t sure yet exactly how much damage his peach crops took. He grows a couple different varieties.

“The first ones, they look pretty bad,” he said. “The later ones, I think we might still have a chance with them.”

His orchard is also up on a hill, with valleys on either side, and the elevation often helps protect the orchard from frost. The farm hasn’t lost a peach crop to frost in about 10 years. For now, Hornyak said, they’re assuming they will have peaches and seeing how things play out.

“I know that we can rest our head on our pillow at night and know that we did the best we could to try to save that orchard,” he said.

Outlook

Farmers are still optimistic about their outlooks for this year.

Dry weather in March allowed Metrick to get into his fields to work more easily than in some recent, rainier years. He’s still expecting to have an apple crop, and anticipating a good year for the rest of his crops, based on the weather and other factors so far.

Huffman expects a lighter apple crop, likely with more misshapen apples and more russet from frost damage. He thinks his peach and plum crops have a good chance, and is reasonably hopeful about the strawberries, though more frost in early May could put strawberries at risk again.

“If those cold temperatures we had were coming in a normal year, they wouldn’t have as big of an effect,” Huffman said. “But it never seems to be a normal year.”

Hornyak isn’t sure yet about the full extent of the damage to his orchard, but he’s hoping for the best. He also farms grain and Christmas trees, so he isn’t relying solely on the peaches.

“That’s just farming,” he said. “You take the good with the bad and move on. That’s one of the reasons we try to stay diversified around here.”

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