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A frost-damaged apple blossom.
A frost-damaged apple blossom.

Weather challenges fruit growers

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New York's fruit growers are suffering through an uncertain time. The freak snow storm Monday only added to that uncertainty. The Innovation Trail's Matt Richmond reports.

(Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate public media outlets, reporting on New York's innovation economy.

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Eric Shatt is the manager of Cornell University’s fruit orchards. He says that the March heat wave caused an early bloom. Then, when it got cold again, that meant trouble.

“We’ll know in a couple of weeks, after the flowering has finished and the fruitlets should be starting to form. We’ll either see them forming or we won’t.”

On March 22, the high temperature in Binghamton was 76 degrees. Five days later there was a low of 18 degrees. Fast forward to Monday, and there’s fresh snow on the ground.

Shatt says it was really the cold weather in March that caused the problems.

“The damage has been done when we had the nights in the 20s. That was when we had severe damage to the flower.”

Shatt says the problem with the recent snowfall is that it keeps bees in their hives, when fruit growers need them out pollinating. If it doesn’t get below 25 degrees again, there could be an adequate apple harvest, about 50 percent of the maximum crop yield. But if it does fall below 25 degrees -

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

The situation is much more dire for cherries. Cherry trees bloom earlier than many of the apple varieties.

Terence Robinson is a professor at Cornell and a board member with the state horticultural society. He says those early cherries were the first to show signs of damage.

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

Robinson 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.

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

New York is the number two apple producer in the U.S., behind only Washington. Sales of New York’s crop topped 200 million dollars in 2010.

Apple trees are popular in part because of their hardiness. They produce many flowers and only a small percentage need to be pollinated to turn a profit.

But this year’s weather has been so unusual that apple growers could still be out of luck.

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. And that year I think they lost pretty near all the fruit in this area.”

Kappus, who grows both apples and cherries, says he’s deciding if harvesting is even worth it this year. Harvesting cherries requires shaking trees with farm equipment.

Kappus says he’ll find out in a couple of 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.

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