Ohio fruit growers brace for winter, but are hopeful for spring yields

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SALEM, Ohio — On average, the high and low mid-February temperatures in Ohio are 19 to 41 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

So far this month, Ohioans have been lucky to see their thermometers reach half those numbers.

But with below-zero lows through at least next week, area fruit farmers kept a positive outlook.

“I don’t think we will see long-term damage, but it could have some effect on things like blackberries and peaches,” said Mike Hirsch, president of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association and owner of Hirsch Fruit Farm in Chillicothe, Ohio.

“A couple weeks of negative 9s and 10s usually isn’t going to kill off (an apple) tree, but it can do some damage the following year’s crop,” said Hirsch, who grows apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

Apples and peaches

David Hull, of White House Fruit Farm in Canfield, Ohio, said most area peach growers have resigned themselves to the prediction that this year’s yields will be low. But the long-range economic impact, Hull said, is still difficult to gauge.

“The amount (of damage) is unknowable until they bloom around the first week of May, and you may not know the whole impact until two to three years down the road. But the educated guess would be that areas that have seen these extreme low temperatures, in all likelihood, won’t have much of a crop.”

Fruit growers have a more confident outlook when it comes to apples and some varieties of berries.

“Typically, we think apples are able to withstand lower temperatures and last year’s crop was nice,” said Hull, who oversees 20 acres of apples and four acres of peaches at White House Fruit Farm. “But even with apples, there are some root stalks that will take it and some that will not. That is why you don’t see a lot of apples grown in Minnesota.”

Berries

Hull said the farm’s good blueberry and raspberry yields last season indicate that this year’s cold weather may not have a detrimental impact on those crops. Blackberries, he said, are another story.
“Blackberry growers, with so-called ‘immovable trellises’ had nothing last year,” Hull said. “And we didn’t have any blackberries at all.”

Grapes

The polar vortex that delivered some of the coldest temperatures in two decades to the region in January and February 2014 decimated Ohio’s vineyards.

Despite what may become record-breaking low temperatures in the first quarter of 2015, grape growers could be better off this year, according to George Sigel, vineyard manager at Debonne Vineyards in Madison, Ohio, and South River Vineyard in Geneva, Ohio.

“Vines are less vulnerable this year than last year,” Sigel said. “Any time you look at a vine’s life, there are three things you look at — roots, shoots and fruit. When we came out of 2014, the vines were all dead.”

With no energy going into making fruit this year, Sigel said, vines have been sinking more roots. Lower winds overall this winter have also helped vineyards on higher ground, he added.

“In 2013 and 2014, there were 20 nights in January that were sub-zero with 25 mph winds, which put the death strikes on vineyards,” he said. “This year, we are having a more standard winter; cold, but calm and clear.”

While there are some variety-specific exceptions, Sigel said the rule of thumb is that wine grapes will handle lows between 8 and 15 below zero.

“Merlots are less hardy and are OK to around -8, but Rieslings are good to about -15,” he said. “On Feb. 16 (this year), we had a low of -16 at Debonne, and they had a -22 at St. Joseph Vineyard across the river. So that was a critical threshold here in the Grand River Valley.”

The calm conditions this year have allowed vineyards on higher elevations to use wind machines to improve wind distribution through the vineyards, Sigel said. But low-lying vineyards, and those without wind machines, may get a repeat performance of last winter.

“Last year, with 25 mph winds, it was more democratic; everything died,” Sigel said.

Wait and see

The worst thing growers can do, according to both Hull and Sigel, is plan too much for the worst.

“We are probably going to set a record low in February,” Sigel said.”But we have to wait and see. Some vineyards are getting antsy and starting to prune. That is standard during dormant times with Concord varieties, but with wine grapes you generally wait and see how hard the winter is going to be.”

Sigel said his vineyards now have “pencil-sized canes,” with the graphed vines, “hilled up” with sand.

“So even if killed to the ground, roots are well insulated,” he said. “We are not going to prune at all, and (instead) leave everything alone until we see the first bud break.

“The difference this year is that there is the potential to use different management strategies. We couldn’t do that last year.”

Hull also said the wait-and-see approach is best at this point.

“It’s agriculture, so as soon as you give a definite answer on something, you’re likely to be proven wrong,” he said.

 

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Brian Lisik lives in Canton, Ohio. A Suburban Newspapers of America and Ohio Newspaper Association award winner for column writing and series writing.

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