Wisconsin apple orchards in deficit this year

On a sunny Saturday in October, the air at Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard in Gays Mills is as crisp as the apples they grow. The door to their farm store is open, inviting customers to browse.

But inside, it’s strangely empty. Dusty shelves are strewn with a few stray jars of honey, jam, and apple cider vinegar. A sign near the cash register reads “self-service”.

In 2019, a late spring frost destroyed their entire harvest. And 2020 brought a nice harvest that should have made up for the losses of the previous year, but activity fell due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year it was a double whammy. A spring frost hit their early varieties, cutting the harvest in half. Then the heat and heavy rains caused their late varieties to drop too early and they couldn’t find enough workers to pick them.

“I’ve been there 22 years and we’ve never seen (apples) do this,” Welsh said.

She said they survived by organizing fundraisers and opening a side business, the Serre du village, to cover basic bills for both businesses.

“It’s sad because you’re taking three years in a row – a success that should push most farmers down,” Welsh said. “We are shocked to be still here.”

While Turkey Ridge’s case is extreme, they are not alone. The state’s apple orchards are experiencing unusually low harvests this year.

“The best I’ve heard is 50 percent of a normal crop, and I’ve heard down to zero – that some orchards don’t have any apples this year,” said Anna Maenner, executive director of Wisconsin Apple Growers Association. .

The average crop across the state this fall is 30 to 40 percent of a typical crop, Maenner said.

While 2020 has been a bumper harvest, which can sometimes mean lower productivity the following year, growers said the main reason for the poor harvest this year was the weather – extreme droughts, followed by late spring frosts. And many orchards that survived the spring unscathed were hit by severe hailstorms over the summer.

“It was a bit of one thing after another,” Maenner said. “All of these things combined have been very difficult for the orchards this year because they have no control over anything.”

These big hits can be tough on small orchards like Turkey Ridge. According to the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, 80 to 90 percent of the state’s apple orchards are smaller farms – 20 acres or less – that depend on pick-your-own and on-site retail rather than sale. basically. When they run out of apples, they close for the season. Wisconsin orchards are typically open until Thanksgiving, but this year, Maenner said, many are closing before Halloween.

‘Normal times we don’t seem to have it anymore’

Sometimes larger, more productive orchards can sell their excess apples to those who had a smaller harvest to keep business going longer for everyone. But even the state’s largest orchards are under pressure this year.

“We have blocks that we’ve never missed a harvest on in 20 years and they’re down,” said Steve Louis, owner of Oakwood Fruit Farm at Richland Center and president of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association.

Louis’s 117-year-old farm is one of the oldest and largest orchards in Wisconsin. Most of its apples are found in state grocery stores. Louis said their 50 percent harvest was considered a good harvest for this year.

As with the other orchards, Louis said the culprit was frost. And he’s seen more frequent late spring frosts over the past five to ten years.

“These types of abnormal weather events seem to be more and more frequent,” Louis said. “Normal weather, we don’t seem to have any more. “

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It’s not uncommon for an orchard to be affected by frost, but Maenner said it’s usually only one city or region that’s affected.

“What’s different this year is that it’s pretty prevalent statewide,” Maenner said.

For many growers and researchers, this indicates one thing.

“It’s definitely an expression of climate change,” said Professor Amaya Atucha, a fruit crop specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She said increasingly extreme variability in temperature and rainfall makes it difficult for fruit trees to grow.

As a perennial crop, apple trees are used to a degree of variation each year, Atucha said. The buds of next year’s apples are forming now and are equipped to survive the Wisconsin winter before they bloom in the spring. But more extreme winter temperatures added additional stress to bud development.

On top of that, the unusually warm weather caused the trees to come out of dormancy too early. Apple trees in Wisconsin typically “bud” in mid-May, but lately Louis has noticed that they are emerging as early as March and April. That early in the season, especially after a harsh winter, new flowers are more susceptible to environmental stresses like frost.

“If we have cold spells in late April or May, then we’re in trouble,” Louis said. “If the genie is out of the bottle, there’s nothing you can do. They’re over.”

And for the apples that manage to survive, the challenges continue. Growers said they had to deal with severe drought, intense rain gusts and hailstorms this summer.

“All of this is brutal for the plants that have to survive this,” Atucha said. “And we get more.”

Apple growers are therefore trying to adapt.

“We will not bail out”

Some orchards are already using irrigation systems and anti-hail nets to thwart mother nature. But these options can be expensive and out of reach for small farms.

To combat cold spells, some farms use fires and wind turbines to warm the air around the trees, but the technique only works if you just need to raise the temperature a few degrees. Maenner and Atucha both said there is not much you can do.

“When you see phenomena like this statewide, it must be related to weather conditions rather than orchard level management,” Atucha said.

Still, the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association is focused on improving practices. Maenner said his January meeting will address issues producers have faced this year. She plans to host panels on irrigation and improving soil health to increase water retention – things Maenner says they didn’t talk about when she started with the association there. At 25 years.

But for now, growers are focusing on reducing the season as much as they can.

“There are apples out there,” Maenner said. “And because the harvest is low, we really need people to go to the orchards and buy the apples they have.”

For orchards like Turkey Ridge, which has had a shortened season, all they can do is hope for a better harvest next year. Fortunately, decades of activity have made orchards as hardy as the trees they grow.

“The Turkey Ridge crew are always looking to next year,” Welsh said. “We will not bail out.”

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