By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, McLEOD COUNTIES, MN Did mid-April’s sub-freezing temps kill this year’s chance of an abundant apple crop?
Not necessarily, according to area growers.
“I remain optimistic that ‘the show will go on’ for this season,” commented Joe Carlson, owner of Carlson’s Orchard west of Winsted.
Unlike some orchards in other areas of the state, his trees were not blooming yet, making them less susceptible to damage.
“We’re thinking that may have helped us,” he said. “Now, it’s wait and see.”
That doesn’t mean the cold isn’t a concern for area growers, however.
“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 apples trees are blooming around Mothers Day,” she said.
Carlson 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 Mike Dekarski, 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.
Townsend, Carlson, and Dekarski 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 in Delano, 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.
“We’re preparing for the best,” Carlson said. “When we cut the buds, we do see some damage, but we also so some promising results.”
“In the south, where it was warmer, the flowers were more open,” Townsend said.
Early season apples, such as SweeTango and Zestar! were among the most impacted. 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 drop off, according to Carlson.
“Then, we start watching for the little fruitlets to grow,” he said, adding that orchards should have a better feel for how the crop will look by mid-May.
“Now, we just need some warm, sunny weather,” Dekarski 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.”
Curt Peterson of Fall Harvest Orchard in Montrose 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.
“We get up and dust ourselves off, and we do it again next year,” Carlson commented. “That’s what a farmer does.”
“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.”