By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MONTROSE, MN Did mid-April’s sub-freezing temps kill this year’s chance of an abundant apple crop?
Not necessarily, according to area growers.
“The flowers that were out are damaged, but there were a lot in the development stage,” commented Mike Dekarski of Apple Jack Orchards in Delano. “Everything looks good with those.”
Some growers around the state were worried about a total crop failure, but Dekarski said it’s too early to make that assessment.
“Last week, I was depressed when I looked out there, because I found nothing alive,” he said Wednesday. “Now, the more I look, the more I find alive.”
Fall Harvest Orchard in Montrose didn’t have any flowering trees during the freeze.
“We were just concerned about the buds,” owner Curt Peterson said.
Area growers said that having buds and blossoms this early is unprecedented.
“We planted our first trees in 1987, and this is the most extreme case I’ve ever seen,” said Ron Nyquist of Countryside Apple Farms in Cokato. “No one’s got any experience with something this early.”
Julie Townsend of Dassel Hillside Farm can relate.
“Normally, the apple trees are blooming around Mothers Day,” she said.
Joe Carlson of Carlson’s Orchard (west of Winsted) was in Oregon when Minnesota was getting 70-degree days in March.
“Usually, we’re about a month behind Oregon for temperature, and this year, we were a month ahead,” he said. “Every time growers see this kind of thing happen, we get a little concerned.”
“We knew it was going to be a disaster when we saw it,” added Dekarski, who is president of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association. “We’ve never had a spring like this.”
The premature warmth caused trees to pop out of dormancy sooner than usual, and many of the state’s earlier apple varieties were already in pre-blossom or blossom stage when the freeze hit.
Save those buds
As temperatures dipped into the 20s the nights of April 9 and 10 farmers used creative methods to help save their delicate buds and blossoms.
Dekarski, Carlson, and Townsend all sprayed a potassium-rich micronutrient, which is designed to give about three degrees of added protection.
“I don’t think it helped much,” Dekarski said. “It was too cold.” At Apple Jack Orchard, Dekarski recorded about 21 degrees the first two nights, and 24 degrees the morning of April 11. At anything below 28 degrees, buds and blossoms have a real risk of being destroyed.
When buds are in the “tight cluster” stage, a temperature of 21 degrees is likely to kill 90 percent. In the next stages, (pre-blossom and blossom), the critical temperature for a 90 percent kill is 25 degrees.
“We had less damage at the top of the hill than at the bottom,” Townsend said. “Cold air goes to the bottom of the hill.”
Carlson’s Orchard turned on its irrigation system in hopes of warming the trees.
“It maybe added moisture and another degree of protection,” Carlson said. “We’ll take all the help we can get.”
Dave Wuerger of Apple Tree-O in Delano tried a similar approach, using a hose to spray his 600 trees, which are on a half-acre of trellises.
“I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “Since I have a smaller orchard, it was feasible to go out there with a hose.”
It could be worse
Wuerger’s father-in-law operates a larger orchard, with about 7,000 trees, near Madison, WI.
“They were trying to light huge bonfires to warm the trees,” Wuerger said.
Despite their best efforts, though, Wuerger said his father-in-law’s blooms don’t look promising.
“They got zapped,” Wuerger said. “I think they lost 75 percent of their crop.”
In Wright, Carver, McLeod, and Meeker counties, many of the trees were not as far along as other regions.
“On our SweeTango and Zestar! trees, the blossoms weren’t open yet, but you could definitely see the formation,” Wuerger said.
Apple Tree-O also grows Cortland, Honeycrisp, Melrose, and Haralson apples.
“I didn’t see any blossoms on those yet,” Wuerger said.
Early-season apples were among the most impacted, but later varieties (like Regent, Honeygold, and Keepsake) may be less affected.
At Carlson’s, the later varieties were still in early development stages as of late last week, and even the earlier trees were not yet blooming.
Area orchards that were further along are also hopeful.
An apple expert who evaluated the damage at Countryside in Cokato April 12 found that so far, many of the orchard’s blooms are intact.
“So far, so good,” Townsend said, adding that only about 10 percent are needed.
In a good year, Dekarski said half to two-thirds of the apples are thinned out later in the season anyway.
“This year, there will be no thinning, the way it looks,” he said.
If trees don’t need thinning, that would be a cost-savings for orchards, according to Carlson. A typical tree can grow 500 apples, but is thinned to about 100 or 200.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Nyquist said. “But, a lot of things have to go right.”
Farmers are hoping that cold weather won’t continue to be a threat.
“We had a Mothers Day freeze one year, too,” Townsend recalled. “We lost half our blooms.”
Even if it doesn’t freeze, chilly temps can be problematic for pollination.
“The bees kind of dictate what gets done,” Nyquist said. “With cool weather during blossom time, the bees won’t be real active.”
Many orchards let their bees out late last week, but it was not warm enough for them to pollinate.
There’s a window of time about 7 to 10 days before the full blossoms are gone, according to Dekarski.
“Now, we just need some warm, sunny weather,” he said.
And, of course, no hail.
“Hail’s the worst problem we have,” he said. “Two minutes of hail can take out a really good crop.”
Peterson said that freezes can be almost more frustrating than hail, though.
“At least with hail, you know how much damage you have the next morning,” he said.
Like other area growers, Peterson said he’s in the “wait-and-see crowd” when it comes to this year’s crop.
“I try not to worry about things I can’t control,” he said.
“If we get frost on Memorial Day or something, they’re all going to be toast,” Nyquist added jokingly. “Your odds in Vegas might be better than your odds of raising an apple crop in Minnesota.”