Farmers hope crops rebound from another harsh winter

Angela Thompson, co-owner of Nye’s Apple Farm, shows off a dead peach tree Thursday along Niles Avenue in St. Joseph Township. Berrien County farmers have had to deal with a lot of damage to orchards this winter. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Angela Thompson, co-owner of Nye’s Apple Farm, shows off a dead peach tree Thursday along Niles Avenue in St. Joseph Township. Berrien County farmers have had to deal with a lot of damage to orchards this winter. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN COUNTY – Southwest Michigan farmers are still feeling winter’s impact while the rest of us are thinking summer.

Bainbridge Township farmer Randy Willmeng said he has his fair share of hardships from winter.

“It was a tough winter on some of the trees this year,” he said. “There were a lot of trees that died and were left half dead.”

Willmeng, who owns about 200 acres he uses to produce apples, tart cherries and peaches, uses several tactics for winter and frost protection. He said he can only do so much because of how many acres he has.

Crops were still susceptible to frost and near-freezing temperatures at night through the beginning of May, but that period has passed.

Megan Dodson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Northern Indiana office, said the worst weather is over for this region as observer data shows the last day to reach freezing temperatures was May 1.

Frost typically occurs when temperatures fall below 36 degrees Fahrenheit, especially in rural areas.

The last time Berrien County saw hard-freeze temperatures below 28 was April 29, Dodson said. The normal median date for the last 28-degree freeze is in early April, but Dodson said farmers can expect a standard summer.

“We have lows in the 40s the next couple of weeks,” Dodson said. “It’s getting into that time of year where it is less and less likely we will see any more frost.”

Willmeng said the Traverse City area was hit with a big freeze last week, which took out a lot of its cherry production. He said farmers can only do so much to counteract frost and winter before it starts to affect the check book.

“We always have frost. I was hit by it last year,” Willmeg said. “I’ve learned that it’s never over until it’s in the box. There’s no way to overcome it. You just take what you get.”

Angela Thompson, Nye’s Apple Barn co-owner, said they are more focused on combating winter damage than spring frost.

“We are out of the (frost) danger zone now,” she said. “But we had a lot of winter damage this year. We lost a lot of peaches and sweet cherries, and we have no blackberries at all.”

With its base of operations in St. Joseph, Thompson said Nye’s grow apples, grapes, pears, peaches, plums, sweet cherries, strawberries and various vegetables.

While farmers with smaller crops have used high tunnels – smaller, open greenhouses – for winter coverage, Thompson said there has been no defense for fruit trees.

Winter 2013-14 was especially hard on Thompson’s peach trees, which forced the company to plant more than 500 new trees this year.

“That’s something people don’t understand,” Thompson said. “It’s not just one season that we will be hurt by. We are trying to rebuild those orchards, and it will take another four to five years to get things going again.”

June Stover, who owns and operates Stover’s Farm Market at 7837 M-139 in Oronoko Township, said most of her crops survived the tumultuous winter.

Cherries are coming in, Stover said, and strawberries will be good for sale by the end of next week.

Stover’s farm had a bout with frost in late April when she was forced to irrigate her strawberries to hold them above freezing temperatures. Workers installed a temperature gauge in the fields and checked it every half hour through the night.

“The weather always has an effect,” Stover said. “Some things are more catastrophic than others. The years we had all that warm weather in March was almost as bad as the cold we’ve got this year.”

Stover’s Farm Market had a catastrophic loss for all its produce in 2012 when every crop bloomed too early due to the abnormal high temperatures.

Stover said the farm had more frost last year, which came at a price for peach trees.

“That’s just one of the reasons 98 percent of the country quit farming,” Stover said. “We have to take care of the trees whether they produce food or not. We hold our breath this time of year. At the moment, everything is looking beautiful.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 29, 2015)

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