By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
It’s a recurring thought that can sneak into the heads of nearly every Southwest Michigan fruit grower this time of year.
Berrien and Van Buren counties have a surprisingly warm weekend forecasted, with high temperatures hitting the mid-50s. While many residents rejoice in a reprieve from frigid conditions, farmers – specifically those who focus on fruit crops – face a potentially disastrous outcome from an early spring.
The reason Southwest Michigan is so successful at growing fruit can also be the region’s downfall. The lake effect weather does well for the soil and the crops they produce. However, when the region gets warmer weather at an earlier time of the year, fruit blossoms begins to bloom.
When fruit blooms, it has a harder time protecting itself from frost, which normally comes overnight – even during some spring months.
That’s why many farmers are hoping for no early damage this weekend.
Mark Longstroth said he is confident nothing too serious will come out of the warm weekend.
Longstroth, a fruit educator at the Michigan State University Extension in Paw Paw, said the majority of this region’s fruit growers are concerned about the unusual weather.
“They’ve had enough of this moderately cold weather,” Longstroth said. “We have similar heat units from 2012, but I expect the buds to move slowly. They’re not going to fully blossom for another two or three weeks at this rate.”
Longstroth has kept an eye on the weather patterns. Going back the last five years, he said 2013 was even warmer than this year.
That year cooled off and there was no early damage to crops in the tri-county area.
“It’s not like we have to start sacrificing goats to the gods this year,” Longstroth said. “We’re going to get warm days, perhaps up to the 60s. When it gets that warm, the plants lose their ability to really harden off cold weather. In early January, we could handle that, but (after this weekend) we loose that ability. But that’s only if it goes below zero degrees. If we get really cold weather, then we can worry.”
The weather had been gracious at times in the fall.
Longstroth acknowledged how grateful growers were last year because there wasn’t any significant freezing until November. This prolonged a lot of fall crops.
While this weekend shouldn’t be a problem, Longstroth said the success or failure of fruit crops this year will depend on how cold it gets toward the end of February and beginning of March.
The normal year has farmers seeing green in March. Longstroth said blooming will be early this year, but not the earliest Southwest Michigan has seen.
“There’s not much a grower can do,” Longstroth said. “Plants are driven by warm temperatures. It’s not usually until March to see warm weather. We’re still early in the season.”
Not another 2012
In 2012, fruit growers were decimated by spring frost across Michigan. Traverse City lost a lot of its cherries and Southwest Michigan lost apples.
Kyle Weber grows apples, tart cherries, peaches, strawberries, cucumbers and asparagus at his Watervliet farm.
He and his wife have been running the farm for a decade and are well aware of 2012. It wasn’t an isolated incident.
“2012 was really bad. That’s when we lost everything,” Weber said. “In 2014, we got nipped a little bit. It’s been happening too often in the last decade.”
Weber said he does’t see his crops blooming this weekend, but he said they’re ahead of schedule.
In addition to his peaches accelerating their normal timetable, Weber said his apples normally hold a little tighter with their buds.
If they bloom early, Weber said his apples will be more acceptable to frost. Then the bud would die, and they’ll be back to where they were in 2012.
“The biggest thing is the nighttime temperature,” Weber said. “If it doesn’t drop below freezing at night during this warm weather, than you can expect an early bloom. The ground needs to freeze up.”
Since there’s no ice on Lake Michigan, Weber said every grower will see warmer weather.
But like Longstroth, Weber doesn’t see anything blooming for a few more weeks.
Because there’s no way to slow down any of his apple trees or to keep them dormant, the best case scenario for Weber and others is to have an early season with little to no frost in March and April.
“We’re probably a good two weeks, maybe three ahead of what we should be as of right now,” Weber said. “After this warm weekend, it may be sooner.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 16, 2017)