Traverse City News and Events

Farmers Wary As Record April Temps Bring Early Blooms - And Potential Heartbreak

By Beth Milligan | April 24, 2021

Take a drive on Old Mission Peninsula, and you’ll see a startling sight for April: apricot trees already in full bloom, with bright buds emerging on apple and cherry trees. Record-high temperatures in early April put area fruit trees weeks ahead of schedule for spring growth. Now farmers are bracing for hard freezes – or even cool temperatures that could keep bees from pollinating – and the potential crop loss that could follow, especially among tart cherry trees.

Faith Fredrickson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gaylord, says Traverse City set multiple records in early April for high temperatures. “On the seventh, we set a new record of 83 degrees, and on the eighth, of 82 degrees,” she says. “That would have been about 30 degrees or more above normal for Traverse City. The low on the seventh was 48 degrees, when normal would be 29. With the warmer lows especially, that can help things really get in the zone of trying to grow again.”

Those temperatures did indeed signal fruit trees to start growing, according to Dr. Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center and co-owner of Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay. “Some growers think (the trees) are two to four weeks early,” says Rothwell. “The concern obviously is that because we’re so early…as the plants come out of dormancy, they become more and more susceptible to negative temperatures. That’s where we start to see the issue of potential damage.”

The further along a fruit bud is – particularly in the blossoming stage, when the plant’s reproductive parts are exposed – the more likely it is to sustain damage when frost hits, explains Rothwell. That becomes an especially high risk when blossoms appear in early April, with weeks still to go before northern Michigan is out of frost danger. The “last frost freeze date for Traverse City is May 17, so we have a long ways to go yet,” says Rothwell. Apricot trees that are already in full bloom could experience significant damage this year, as could other tender trees like peaches.

As for the region’s main fruit crops – cherry (both tart and sweet), apples, and grapes – farmers are religiously monitoring temperatures and checking orchards right now during this pivotal final stretch into May.

“I probably check the weather forecast more between April 15 and May 15 than I do during the other 11 months out of the year combined,” says Isaiah Wunsch of Wunsch Farms on Old Mission Peninsula. Temperatures in Wunsch’s orchards crept down to the 26-27 degree range this week – a definite danger zone for fruit trees. “We may have some severe damage to the tart cherry blocks,” he says, adding that of the trees his team has checked, “every developed flower was frozen.” Wunsch says 15 to 20 percent of the viable flowers on sweet cherries may also be damaged, though those trees are typically hardier than tart cherries.

Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley, who sources fruit from Old Mission and Antrim County, is working with his growers now to assess apples trees. Ulbrich also plans to test grape buds over the weekend for “obvious signs” of damage. “Right now the vines are transitioning from dormancy to growing, so the vines are full of water,” he says. “They lose hardiness as the spring develops and they transition. Our fear of cold spring temps is that the sap will freeze and damage the internal structure of the plant. Twenty-five degrees is a general breaking point for the current situation. We likely avoided that, but the buds could have been damaged in certain varieties and micro-climates.”

Rothwell and the rest of the MSU team are working to get farmers clearer answers on exactly what temperature ranges will damage certain crops. A new research project is using programmable freezers that incrementally drop temperatures on enclosed fruit buds, with the buds removed every two hours and cut open to see at what point damage begins. For Honeycrisp apples, for example, staff saw zero damage to buds at 26.6 and 24.8 degrees, started to see minor damage at 23.9 degrees, and saw significant damage at 21.2 degrees. “That has been tremendously helpful data, because a lot of the information we go off of is old information,” says Rothwell. That data indicates local Honeycrisp trees are likely holding up even amid the low temperatures seen in the region this week; Wunsch confirms he’s not worried about apples as much as other fruit trees right now.

Even if local fruit farmers can escape freeze damage before summer, another “gauntlet” still awaits, Wunsch says. “During blooming, each flower will need to be pollinated to develop into a piece of fruit,” he says. “Honeybees don’t fly or aren’t active typically below temperatures of 55. So I think the big challenge we’ll be facing the next couple weeks is that with the fluky April warmup, trees will push out blossoms without regard to current temperatures, and I’m worried about whether we’ll have a good window for pollination.” Fruit trees could end up surviving the danger of freeze damage, only to fail to produce fruit without visits from bees during the short pollination window. Early warm temperatures might have also allowed some pests to overwinter without being killed off by the cold – another factor the agricultural industry is closely monitoring, according to Rothwell.

If all of that sounds like a minefield for fruit crops, farmers are blunt: It is. And it’s a problem that could continue to worsen in the years ahead due to climate change, with unpredictable weather patterns – early springs, random late freezes, and wetter summers – wreaking havoc on orchards. “These issues are going to cause growers to incur more risk, because they can do everything right, and if a freeze event comes along, there’s nothing they can do about it,” says Rothwell. “It will be harder and harder to grow fruit in Michigan. There is crop insurance and diversification, but there’s no silver bullet.”

Wunsch agrees that the challenges are real, with diversification one of the few practical solutions for farmers to try and remain sustainable. If tart cherries fail this year, he notes, crop insurance payouts will be based on previous values – not an appealing scenario in the wake of tart cherry prices plummeting in recent years. Wunsch says while farmers in Willamsburg or Leelanau might be able to hang on because of lower land costs – which keep overhead down in bad years – he no longer thinks it’s economically viable to grow tart cherries on Old Mission. “All of our new plants for the last five years have been Honeycrisp apples and sweet cherries,” he says. “We’ve also started to diversify our sweet cherries. We’re looking at varieties that might bloom later, or have earlier or later maturation dates, so that we can diversify our harvest dates.”

The goal, Wunsch says, is to plan for the reality of erratic weather events – such as the major rain deluges Traverse City experienced in spring and fall 2020 – by ensuring that not every single crop is vulnerable to the same disaster at the same time. “While our risk of losing 20 percent of the crop in any given year might be higher,” he says of diversifying, “we’re not going to lose 100 percent of the crop.”

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