Apple growers struggling with tough season

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 08, 2012, at 4:30 p.m.

LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Total crop failure.

It’s the first season in more than 30 years that apple grower Bob Sewall of Sewall Organic Orchard in Lincolnville has seen such a dire scenario, which he attributes to abnormally warm March days followed by a cold snap that froze premature apple blooms.

“It’s the worst run we’ve ever had,” the longtime orchardist and organic foods proponent said Saturday morning. “I’ve maybe had 50 bushels, while we normally do 2,000 or even up to 2,500 bushels. It doesn’t give us enough to do the Common Ground Fair or really anything.”

Sewall isn’t the only apple grower in the state that has had tough times this year, though most orchards have not reported similar total crop failures, according to Renae Moran, a tree fruit specialist with the University of Maine. She said Friday that while growers had a large apple crop last fall, harvesting perhaps a million bushels in 90 commercial orchards around Maine, the erratic weather this year will diminish the number considerably. She estimates that there may be just 700,000 bushels harvested this fall, and many of those apples are ripening weeks ahead of schedule.

“The growers are starting to talk about global warming and the impact on their production,” she said. “If winters become more typical of a southern location, like North Carolina, it will have an impact on the crop. It will increase the numbers of years when we lose our apples to spring freezes.”

She said that while growers in North Carolina must think about whether they will have a spring freeze every year, Maine growers historically almost never worry about it.

“It’s becoming more of a concern. Consistently cold is what we like to see,” she said.

The diminished apple harvest isn’t just due to the weather, she and other growers said. Usually, after a year with a heavy apple crop, as happened last year, trees produce a lighter crop of apples. But the summer temperatures that came in March caused an early bloom and then an April cold snap devastated many low-lying orchards.

“Crop failures break continuity,” Sewall said. “People who are used to coming either forget about you or find someplace else to go. It affects your business in the future.”

However, other states are reporting that their apple crops have been worse-hit by weather than in Maine, according to Steven Meyerhans, the owner of Lakeside Orchards in Manchester and the Apple Farm in Fairfield.

He said that while he lost 15-20 acres of apples from trees planted at the bottom of his orchards, he is only estimating a 20 percent loss of his crop. The usual harvest is 30,000 bushels of apples, he said.

“The crop losses of apples in other states were even more severe,” Meyerhans said Friday. “Michigan usually picks 25 million bushels. There’s less than five million this year.”

New York, which is the second-largest apple producing state after Washington, is also anticipated to have about half its usual crop of apples, he said. Ohio, southern New England states and Washington state also will have smaller harvests than normal.

“Nationwide, it’s going to be quite a bit less than normal,” he said. “The prices are going to be high this year. That will help us out in Maine. Anybody who has apples will get a good price this year. Our business will be fine.”

In fact, he said that his orchards still have an “outstanding” crop of apples for people to pick.

That’s not the case at Sewall’s orchard in Lincolnville, which has received hundreds of emails from longtime customers who are worried and disappointed about the total crop failure, according to the grower.

“We’re definitely running into a pattern of earlier hot spells and very erratic weather,” Sewall said. “It’s not the real normal kind of patterns that we’re used to, or the trees are used to. It’s a real indication that things are changing. People can say it’s climate change, or that it isn’t. It really doesn’t matter either way. Things are changing, and that’s the only constant.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/09/08/business/apple-growers-struggling-with-tough-season/ printed on July 23, 2014