Food & farms: Tough year for Berkshire apple harvest
Photo Gallery | Berkshire County apple crop impacted by cold snap, drought
Walking through Lakeview Orchards in Lanesborough, owner David Jurczak sees a group of trees with apples growing, followed by another group that's completely bare.
At Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Dennis Mareb has apple trees that have fruit growing on one side and nothing growing on the other.
"It is, to say the least, a real strange year in the orchard business," Mareb said.
Berkshire orchards have been hit hard this year by a confluence of unusual weather events, which together combined to have an outsize impact on local crops. A mostly snowless winter followed by sudden, frigid cold snaps in mid-February and early April were the main culprits, local orchard owners said.
The spring freeze was especially lethal because it came after a period of unusually warm weather, causing serious damage to apple trees just as they were beginning to bud. That was followed by this summer's hot, dry weather, which has led to drought-like conditions, and affected the growing patterns of several other crops.
The odd weather wiped out the entire peach crop in New England, New York and parts of New Jersey, according to a post on Lakeview Orchards' website. Massachusetts alone produced 1,249 tons of peaches in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although some varieties of apples that grow in Berkshire orchards weren't affected by the extreme conditions, problems with the apple crop this year have been reported as far south as eastern Tennessee.
"Last year it was a fairly good year," said Debra Senger, the USDA's executive director for Berkshire County. "The temperature and everything was in alignment. Some orchards will have apples, but not as many as they did last year."
Jurczak said the February cold snap, which occurred around Valentine's Day weekend, killed all his peach and cherry blossoms. Although it occurred in midwinter, that freeze was destructive because it came when there was hardly any snow on the ground.
"When the frost freezes, it goes down into the roots because there's no (snow) coverage," Senger said. "Some of the trees have died."
The cold snap in April was even more devastating.
"When the weather gets warm, the trees bud, and all of a sudden you have not normal temperatures for April, so when you have a frost it kills the buds," she said. "Buds are the start of the fruit."
According to the Fruit Tree Production Guide, compiled by the Pennsylvania State University, a 90 percent kill of apples, cherries and peaches can occur with temperatures of about 25 degrees for about 30 minutes. The temperatures in April's cold snap were close to zero, orchard owners said.
The level of damage at specific temperatures can vary between different varieties of fruit, which may be one reason why this year's apple crop is so mixed.
At Bartlett's Orchard in Richmond, this year's apple crop is down about 40 percent from last year, and the apples are smaller than they were in 2015, according to owner Cindy Bartlett.
John Vittori, the owner of Hilltop Orchards in Richmond, said he lost about 75 percent of his apple crop.
"Mostly in the early varieties," Vittori said. "Apples mature at different stages so the earlier varieties that were more advanced in the early stages when the frost hit were damaged the most.
"The good thing is that what's there is very high quality," he said. "We're definitely open (for) pick your own."
At Windy Hill, Mareb has a good crop of blueberries thanks to irrigation, but the apple crop is down about 50 percent.
"Of course, we've had a drought all summer and that hasn't helped things out," he said. "We have a deep rock soil, so we've been far less affected by the drought than other orchards, but this is the first year that our trees have been showing drought stress. What that means is the apples are not as large as they normally are."
While some varieties of apples at Windy Hill Farm have been affected, others have not.
"It's totally crazy," Mareb said. "Usually, we're pretty consistent in our production."
"We've seen some really cold springs," Jurczak said. He opened Lakeview Orchards in 1996 by planting 1,000 dwarf apple trees and 50 blueberry bushes. "But I think we've lost cherries maybe once in 20 years."
As for apples, "we have certain varieties that are pretty hardy," Jurczak said, referring to the ones that survived the frost. "(But) it's not a good year. It's been absolutely dry this summer, so what apples we do have, they're not sizing up."
"We have 18 different varieties of apples," Cindy Bartlett said of her Richmond orchard. "We've only picked two so far. The older ones, if we get some rain, may get more size because they've been on the trees longer."
She's hoping for the best.
"There's a theory out there that when (apples) are smaller they're crunchier because they have more flavor," Bartlett said.
The farmers all blame this year's erratic weather pattern on climate change.
"I believe in climate change, I really do," Jurczak said. "I know a lot of people don't believe in it including certain people who are running for office.
"Look how hot it's been this summer," he said. "It's just absolutely one of the hottest summers I've ever seen."
Abnormal weather. Smaller yields of crops. That one-two combination hits orchard owners in the pocket book.
"Financially, it's going to really hurt us," Jurczak said. "We're just going to have to fall back on the money we made the last few years to pay the help. And we still have to pay to take care of the trees."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.
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