MACHIAS, Maine — “The jury is still out,” apple grower Rob Boothby of Livermore reported Sunday as he assessed his orchard’s apple crop.
Three nights of severe and unexpected frost in mid-May appear to have heavily damaged apple production in southern Maine — with some orchards predicting a 90 percent failure — but Boothby said the real evidence will be “the June drop.” He explained that each apple blossom sets several fruit and then naturally drops the weakest ones in June.
When this occurs at the end of the month, Boothby said, the extent of damage will become more clear.
Already, however, he is estimating a 30 percent to 40 percent loss on his 3,000 trees.
Apple growers in central and northern Maine appear to have escaped largely unharmed, but an early bloom and a late frost severely damaged apple blossoms farther south.
“We bloomed probably three weeks ahead of schedule,” Rod Bailey of Bailey’s Orchard in Whitefield said. “Normally, we’d be blooming about now.”
Bailey said he lost 75 percent to 85 percent of the fruit on his 400 trees.
Trees that normally produce seven to eight bushels — about 1,000 apples — could drop to 60 apples or nothing, he said.
Orchardists will lose 10 percent to 15 percent of a crop at 28 degrees F. At 25 degrees, 90 percent of the crop will be lost, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Don Ricker of Ricker Hill Orchards, which has 350 acres of apple trees, said everyone through Michigan, New York, Vermont and into southern Maine got hit with the late frost.
“What hurt was it was such a very early bloom,” he said Sunday. “Southern Maine got hit quite hard.”
Ricker said he estimates a 30 percent loss but in some areas of the orchard the frost was so heavy that the loss could reach 90 percent.
“That’s the game that we play with the weather,” he said. When asked about the financial repercussions, Ricker added, “It ain’t gonna help.”
Maine’s apple crop — a $15 million harvest — could be cut in half. But if the majority of the large Northeast producers had damage, Ricker said, the price of apples this fall could go up, which would even out the losses.
“In a week to 10 days we’ll be better able to tell the full extent,” Ricker said.
If the losses are high enough, Gov. John Baldacci could declare the affected places disaster areas, which could release federal funding assistance. There also is a tree assistance program that potentially could help apple growers.
USDA Farm Service Agency’s Tree Assistance Program provides financial assistance to qualifying orchardists and nursery tree growers to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees, bushes and vines damaged by natural disasters occurring on or after Jan. 1, 2008, and before Oct. 1, 2011. The program was authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill and is funded through the Agricultural Disaster Relief Trust Fund.