BOSTON — Frank Whittemore has been growing fruit for a lifetime and can’t ever remember a year when the buds started peeking out on his 30,000 apples trees so early in the spring. And that’s what has him worried.
“We’re just praying that we don’t get some really, really cold weather over the next few weeks,” said Whittemore, 85, co-owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, N.H. “It would be a disaster for us.”
While most residents of the Northeast were enjoying the recent spate of warm weather, apple growers fretted about an unprecedented early bloom that could leave the nascent fruit vulnerable to a dangerous cold snap. And farmers around the country fear that other fruits, including cherries, blueberries and plums, could also fall victim to frost.
Orchard managers and fruit experts said a balmy early spring — the mercury climbed to a record-shattering 92 degrees in parts of New England on April 7 — combined with an early snow melt and heavy rains in March has trees blossoming two to three weeks ahead of schedule on average. That leaves plenty of time on the calendar for the region’s notoriously unpredictable weather to strike back with a killer freeze.
“There will be a couple of weeks where the growers, I think, will be pretty nervous,” said Russell Powell, executive director of the New England Apple Growers Association, which represents hundreds of commercial orchards in the region.
The danger with the accelerated growing pattern, Powell explained, was that once the tiny buds push out, they can easily be killed off by a hard and sudden frost.
And it’s not just apples that are at risk. Peaches and plums that generally blossom slightly ahead of apples are also off to a much faster start this season. Even blueberries, just starting their growth cycle, could be susceptible to cold.
A hard frost is not uncommon in New England in the last two weeks of April and not unheard of in early May.
Snow showers were forecast for the weekend in parts of New England, though temperatures were not expected to fall much below freezing.
Experts say a drop in temperature to 28 degrees could damage 10 percent of the crop and a drop of a few more degrees could damage up to 90 percent of the crop. The stakes are high: The six New England states combined to produce 182 million pounds of apples commercially in 2008, the last year for which the United States Department of Agriculture had final statistics.
While that is only a fraction of the nearly 9.8 billion pounds produced nationwide, in New England much of it is sold directly to consumers at pick-your-own establishments in the fall, when apple-picking is a time-honored tradition and a lifeblood for family farms.
John Burns, general manager of Lookout Farm in Natick, Mass., said the first of his 60,000 fruit trees — about a third of them apple trees — bloomed 24 days ahead of last year. While he will be watching the weather closely over the next few weeks, he says there are few precautions he can take since like most farms in the Northeast he is not equipped with irrigation systems that could help protect the fruit from extreme cold.
“I can’t take any precautions here if we are going to have a hard freeze. It’s not like we’re in Florida or California and we have a sprinkler system,” said Burns.
Stephen Wood, owner of Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H., said another danger of a protracted spring is that it could leave the blossoming fruit more vulnerable to bacterial diseases, such as one called fire blight, that are normally less of a concern to growers in New England.
Wood has owned the orchards since 1965 and can’t remember a spring this early.
“It’s not just a little bit the earliest, it’s the earliest by miles. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s not a little bit weird … its high weird.”
Northeast farmers aren’t the only ones worrying. The unusually warm weather also had some apple and cherry trees in Michigan blossoming about three weeks earlier than normal. Warm weather in February also led to an early bloom in cherry and pear orchards in the Northwest.
“The odds of having subfreezing temperatures are much greater right now than they would be in the first week of May when we would more typically be in bloom,” said Jon Clements, a fruit expert at University of Massachusetts Extension, who remains cautiously optimistic that the crop will survive without major damage.
If that is the case, the accelerated growing cycle could inevitably lead to an earlier harvest. Strawberries, peaches and early-season apples could be a week to 10 days earlier, Clements said, and juicy McIntosh apples may be ready for picking as early as Labor Day, he said.
Growers are quick to point out, however, that Mother Nature often has a way of evening things out. A cooler summer, for example, would slow things back down and put the harvest back on a more typical schedule.