Farmers battle the elements to help protect their fruit crops

Published: May. 11, 2020 at 6:19 PM EDT
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(5/11/20) - Saturday morning's chilly temperatures weren't just uncomfortable, they were TERRIBLE for Michigan's fruit crop.

Apples alone are a nearly billion-dollar industry.

Spicer Orchards, didn't want Mother Nature to wipe out their fruit crop like it did back in 2012.

So, they created some of their own weather to battle temperatures that dipped into the upper teens to low 20s on their property early Saturday morning.

"We hired a helicopter to come and push warm air onto our trees. We also lit over 20 bonfires to help bring the temperature up around, and ran our irrigation system, which basically throws 55 degree water out on the farm to help warm the air up," said Spicer Orchards Outdoor Manager Matthew Spicer.

Spicer estimates it cost more than $20,000 between equipment and manpower working non-stop through the night.

But that cost pales in comparison to what they could have lost, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"When people come out here to pick the apples, they're also buying donuts and cider and honey and everything else off of us. And, if we don't have that type of pick your own atmosphere, there's not a lot of reasons to come out here," Spicer added.

Which is why Spicer is happy his losses were minimal.

However, growers are not out of the woods just yet, as temperatures are expected to dip back into the 20s Tuesday morning.

Other orchards lost more than 50% of their crop.

However, it's not necessarily bad news.

While some farmers took extreme measures to fight off sub-freezing weather Saturday morning, other growers rolled the dice and hoped for the best.

Pink apple buds may look like the picture of health, but looks can be deceiving.

Charles Mueller inspects his apple trees after near record cold temperatures Saturday morning.

"After it warmed up we started cutting buds, and it looks like around 60% of them got killed," said Charles Mueller.

What died was a lot of buds that eventually turn into apples later in the season.

While Mueller's snow apples took a big hit, other varieties appeared to have fared better.

Even with more than half his buds dead, all is not lost for a good crop.

"On the average, two buds are left on a cluster. And, as a result, there will be a fair crop of apples, and the size will be pretty good, because the crop will be lighter because of the freeze," Mueller added.

Retired MSU Extension Director Bob Tritten said you can have a good crop of apples with as little as 5% of the buds surviving, due to a lack of competition, which allows them to grow bigger and fuller.

Apple trees also go back and forth each season between higher and lower production.

This year happens to be a stronger one, so look for bigger apples, just not as many due to the freeze.

And there's another bit of good news.

"It should be, like I say, a decent crop. And, as a result of this being a lighter crop, they'll set good buds for next year. Because, they'll start making next year's buds in July," commented Mueller.

If farmers can get through just one more night of sub-freezing temperatures, cold will no longer be a damaging factor for the rest of the season.

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