It has been an unusually warm and sunny March and April in western Michigan. And during this time of staying at home during COVID-19, for many seeing those sunny skies and even bringing the kids in the yard to play might be a welcomed respite. However, we may be facing issues that could affect fruit harvests.
Michigan State University Extension Food Educator Mark Longstroth told WWMT that an early, long stretch of warm weather could push fruit plants to blossom, making them weaker to cold temperatures. If that process happens too early in the year, impending cold snaps can kill the flowers, which would mean they wouldn't produce fruit for the rest of the season.
“At bloom time, around 28 degrees will kill the flowers,” Longstroth told WWMT. “If the flowers get killed, then we don't have any apples. The same goes for peaches, cherries, blueberries and grapes.”
“If we get up above 42 and stay above 42 for long periods of time, then the tree will start to grow,” Longstroth said. “We just don't want them to get too far ahead of where we should normally be.” And there is a precedent.
Eight years ago exactly that scenario happened, when too-warm-too-soon weather prompted a 5% crop yield in Michigan. With 80 degrees for highs during the day and 60 degrees at night, fruit trees were blooming at the end of March, but then April brought several freezes.
“We had virtually no fruit,” said Longstroth. “For our [farmers], they had nothing. They had to go to the bank and talk to the bank about extending their operating loans because they couldn't repay money. They had to go look for part-time jobs so they could buy some food.”
Longstroth said it’s too early to know if 2020 will bring the same problems fruit farmers saw during spring 2012. However, he said, a mild winter means they’re off to a good start.
“The positive impacts is that it didn't get too cold,” he said. “We've had these polar vortex events for three of the last six years, so peaches and wine grapes were all impacted last year, and in 2014 and 2015, there were basically crop failures because we got down to minus 20 degrees.”
A farmer’s job seems to never be stable or done.