By Daniel Gatta and Skyler Gilbert
An unseasonably warm February could cause the New York State apple crop to reach an advanced stage of growth earlier than usual, resulting in perhaps a severe loss of crops.
Several orchard owners, including one on Long Island, have expressed concern that the temperatures — over 60-degrees Fahrenheit in some locations — will make trees lose their “winter hardiness” and become vulnerable to a late frost.
These fears come after a disappointing 2016 season in which over 90 percent of the state’s apple crop was decimated due to sudden cold spells late last spring.
“The blossoms will come early and then the real problem is that if we have a normal freeze in May we can lose crops,” Joy Crist of Crist Brothers Orchard in Walden, New York said. “The recent weather is really setting up for a crop loss that might come at a later time when the trees cannot protect themselves from the cold.”
Trees are not yet bloomed but a continuation of mild temperatures could bring flowering sooner than preferred.
Once matured, a temperature below 28-degrees could annihilate an entire crop, multiple farmers said. A low yearly yield due to weather is not uncommon in fruit farms, but would be especially difficult given the disappointing 2016 season.
“Last year we had a bad crop due to a late frost,” Autumn Piazza, an orchardist at Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, said. “We were supposed to get double the produce we had the year before, but since we’re falling into this pattern of warmer winter weather, we are at risk of losing a good chunk of our crops.”
Piazza recalled that the situation escalated to such a point last year that the orchard set up “mini bon fires” to prevent blossomed trees from freezing in the winter and spring. If the weather proceeds in a similar manner, such precautions could be taken again.
On Long Island, the concern is a bit mitigated due to a more moderate climate than the “fringe temperatures” of the cold upstate.
But Lou Amsler, the owner of Richter’s Orchard in Northport, one of only two apple farms in central Long Island, is cautiously optimistic about his crop this year, provided that temperature changes are slow and minimal.
“With this hot weather, it needs to cool off gradually,” Amsler explained. “If it cools gradually, the trees can safely go back into their dormant mode.”
Quick weather fluctuations can cause several adversities to apple growth. Flowers can be killed outright. Damaged seeds can cause pollination problems, which can lead to deformities, rigid skin or “frost rings” on the fruits.
Some traditional southern-grown pitted fruits are more susceptible to cold snaps than apples, the chief fruit grown in New York.
“Our apple trees are okay as of now,” Piazza said. “But our cherries, plums, pears, peaches and stone fruit are beginning to bud so we could potentially be losing them yet again.”
For apples, worries are still limited this early in the season, but orchard growers are keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast for the upcoming months.