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Nipped in the Bud: May Freeze Damaged Region’s Fruit Crop

“With climate change, we don’t have the stability that we used to,” one grower said.

Tim Smith of Apex Orchards shows the inside of an apple bud damaged by May's late freeze. Brian Zayatz photo.

In the days leading up to May 17, fruit growers across New England watched weather predictions with alarm as temperatures threatened to plunge well below freezing that night.

There is little that can be done to prepare a budding apple tree for a freeze, and when the night came to pass with lows well into the 20s across the area north of the Mass Pike, growers set out in the following days to assess the damage.

For some, it was historically bad.

“I’ve been told by my elders that the last time the farm had a freeze out was 1940,” Tim Smith, a seventh-generation apple grower and owner of Apex Orchards in Shelburne, told The Shoestring. “With climate change, we don’t have the stability that we used to. They talk about global warming, but the side that hits us harder is the swings [in temperature].” 

Apex Orchards lost about one third of the orchard’s crop to the freeze, Smith said. The damage at Apex was concentrated in a low lying area, sparing the orchard’s pick-your-own and home farm areas. 

“It’s not a general, widespread event,” Smith said. “If you’re high enough, probably 800 to 1,000 feet of elevation, you’re safer,” he added, explaining that cool air can drain into valleys and avoid damaging apple blossoms. 

According to Dave Hayes, a local weather tracker and self-proclaimed “weather nut,” the cold snap was a result of a system bringing cold air down from the north. 

“This air was also very dry,” he explained. “Skies were clear as high pressure worked into the region behind a cold front, and winds died down. With cool air advection, clear skies, very dry air and very still air, radiational cooling maximized, which refers to the escape of heat into space at night.”

Not all of the area’s orchards experienced the same damaging conditions. Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley reported very little damage, in part because of a difference in climate between their floodplain orchard and others at higher elevations and latitudes.

“We got lucky, for sure,” said owner Jonathan Carr, who added that the frost might have been less severe at their orchard. Generally warmer temperatures at the location also hasten bud development, meaning that their trees were less vulnerable to damage. 

“Our main crop of apples had already gone through bloom, they bloomed early and had set their fruit early — it offers a little more protection than an orchard in full bloom,” he said, explaining that the pistil and stamen, the reproductive parts of the flower that need pollination to produce fruit, are “really only a few cells wide.”

Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, meanwhile, described “severe” damage to apples, pears, cherries, and grapes in a Facebook post. The damage, they said, “is making for one of the most challenging growing seasons in the history of our farm.”

In a comment on that post, the farm clarified that it was in “good shape financially.” Similarly, Smith from Apex Orchards did not seem existentially concerned about the loss, citing crop insurance. Though Apex’s insurer declined to comment, Smith reported that they told him they had “been fielding calls nonstop from New England and New York for the last five days.” 

Crop insurance is subsidized and managed by the USDA and administered through private insurers who apply rates and regulations set by the federal government. Each grower selects their own coverage level, so some orchards may be covered better than others. 

“It was always very complicated,” Smith said of the insurance system. “But now it’s even more complicated.” The payout for Apex’s crop loss will likely not come until this time next year, and will not come close to covering the full loss, he said.

But while farms themselves are protected to some extent, seasonal workers whose work has been eliminated by the freeze are not. Even, and sometimes especially, when an orchard suffers a crop loss, there is still work to do during the season — like pruning the peach trees that will also not be fruiting this year due to periods of extreme cold over the winter. But Smith explained that while there is plenty of work to do, “the cash flow just isn’t there this year, so it’s hard to justify the capital improvements.” 

Like many orchards, Apex hires a crew of mostly Jamaican visa workers each year. According to Smith, the crew is made up of the same people over the course of decades, and now some fathers on the crew are bringing their sons with them. One worker has been with Apex for 50 years. Smith said the orchard has not yet decided what to do about their crew of visa workers this year.

Smith and Hayes both declined to speculate whether destructive late freezes could become more common in the future due to climate change.. But Hayes said he has noticed the region’s winter weather pattern, in which ridges and troughs in the atmosphere bring cold air from the north, has been setting up later into the year over the last half dozen years. 

“Just look at this past winter,” Hayes said via email. “There were some cold times in January and especially early February with that cold snap, but it was overall mild. Then we got three snowstorms in March, culminating with a hilltown dumper that brought 1-4 feet of snow to the high terrain.”

For now, the changes in climate have not been too chaotic to totally destabilize fruit growers, those interviewed for this story said. 

“The flip side of it is, when I was a kid we didn’t grow peaches,” Smith reflected. “We just have that risk of the occasional drop of 10 to 15 below [zero]. In 20-25 years of peaches, this is the second total freeze out we’ve had.”

But that doesn’t mean a freeze doesn’t sting. 

“We’ll be feeling repercussions from this for a long time,” Smith concluded as we stood among rows of dry, brown apple blossoms.

Brian Zayatz is a co-editor at The Shoestring.

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