Warm weather keeps fruit growers on edge

MANISTEE COUNTY — Like everyone else, Manistee County’s fruit farmers may be enjoying the unseasonably warm weather that’s in the forecast through the end of the week.

But all of them know that a hard freeze later this month or in April or May could spell disaster.

“I’d like to tell you I could look in the future and know what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County.

“What we have right now is a pretty atypical situation, that’s for sure,” she continued. “We did some calculating and when we compared the temperatures and forecasts through this Saturday to our five year average, we’re essentially five weeks ahead of time. I don’t know if we’ve ever dealt with anything like this. I know that 1945 was a very warm year — some of the older farmers will remind us of that, but this is pretty unusual.

“It’s just very, very strange,” she said. “It’s strange that the nighttime temperatures aren’t getting cold, either. So we’re accumulating these growing degree days. We could see blooming sweet cherries sometime in the next 10 days, and that’s pretty crazy.”

Rothwell said that early blooming isn’t a problem as long as there is no freezing weather through the spring.

“Usually we don’t plant our gardens until Memorial Day weekend because of the possibility of frost, and we have a long time to go until then,” Rothwell said.

“My concern is, and this is just mainly in tart cherries, that if we get temperatures under 29 degrees from now until harvest, we would see some damage,” she said. “It’s a real concern.”

She said each crop is susceptible to cold temperatures at different points in the growing season.

“For tart cherries it’s different than for sweet cherries. Our apples bloom later than cherries. Wine grapes at the research station are still dormant, so that’s good news.

“Tart cherries have a water bud stage where the blossoms aren’t even out, but the cherries at that stage are vulnerable to cold temperatures.”

She said growers are calling about making management decisions because they see how far along the trees are.

“There’s definitely some concern in the grower community,” she said. “There’s really nothing they can do. I’ve talked to a lot of them and they’re a little nervous, but they’re remaining optimistic. I think that’s the best thing they can do for now, hope for the best.”

In Manistee County Rothwell works with growers of apples, cherries, asparagus, strawberries and wine grapes.

“The weather could have an impact on asparagus, if it were to start coming up and then we get a frost,” she said. “It’s possible that corn growers could get their crops in earlier this year if it stays warm, but then you’d be gambling that you’re not going to get those frosty temperatures at some time after you plant.”

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Posted by Dave Yarnell

Dave was formerly the News Advocate features writer and retired in November 2013.

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