Area orchards produced short crops due to weather changes

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BENNINGTON >> Typically, apple picking season runs from the second week in August to the end of October, but this year some orchards were closed by the beginning of October, or before.

Ever since March 2010, apple crops have clicked into a biennial system due to some kind of weather event, according to Terence Bradshaw, Ph.D., research associate at the University of Vermont.

"It's not random and it's not just shortages," he said. "Apples are perennial crops developing next year's fruit buds at the same time they are developing this year's apples. If you have overproduction one year, there's not enough for the next year."

The U.S. Apple Association estimated a 14 to 15 percent decrease in apple production in Vermont from last year, which Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs, said held up to the expectation.

Bradshaw cited a Mother's Day frost the year the pattern started. In 2011 the production was better. The following year it was short, and so on.

This year it was a warm front that visited in March, breaking fruit buds too early, followed by a drop to 5 degrees on April 5, Tom Smith, owner of Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset said.

Mad Tom announced on its Facebook page on Oct. 3 that it was closed for the season due to a short crop. "Thanks for your support in a difficult year," the post read.

"[The weather] killed about 60 percent of our crop," Smith said in an email. "McIntosh and Cortland varieties were hardest hit — Gala and Honeycrisp, which were still mostly dormant, had close to a full crop."

He added that orchards farther north in Vermont and New York made out better because the fruit buds were still dormant when the temperature dropped in April.

In addition to climate changes, little rain has watered crops to keep soil moist. To compensate, some orchards use an irrigation system, but find that sometimes it's not worth the cost. Bradshaw disagrees.

"For new orchards [it's worth it] without a question," he said. "If you're putting in the expense to establish a new orchard, it's foolish not to irrigate. We're shifting to smaller and smaller trees. There's a lot less space using that soil, yes with the new orchards, it's imperative that they find a way to water. A lot of places don't have a good place to get water. The established trees still around have a solid root system."

Even though the systems are expensive to implement, Bradshaw says they produce high quality fruit. It's a "high risk, high return" situation.

Seetin said growers have to go through an economic worksheet to evaluate how many years they would actually use the irrigation system.

"A lot of the eastern orchards that employ irrigation have a trickle irrigation," he said. "'How many years out of 10 will I benefit from irrigation' and they weigh that against the installation and they'll find that it won't pay for itself. You have to go through those numbers, that's the decision-making process. It's a little about looking at the past and looking to the future and what you feel the likelihood of the change of the moisture situation is."

Irrigation may help the dry weather situation, but to protect crops from weather changes early in the year isn't practical, he added.

"I've seen growers do some things with benefit but there's no research [behind it]," Bradshaw said.

For example, setting bails of hay on fire and rolling them down the orchard rows, propane cannons or wind machines.

The Apple Barn, which harvests from Southern Vermont Orchards, sees an average of one thousand visitors each weekend during harvest season, said owner Lia Diamond. They harvested half a crop with many small apples.

"We planted older varieties with dwarfs," she said. "We're blessed to have apples. It was a good year."

She added that the early frost didn't reach her orchard like the one Mad Tom's experienced.

Diamond's orchard has irrigation and she said this year would have "been worse without it."

Honeycrisp turned out well for Southern Vermont Orchards, Diamond said.

The bright side to a short crop year, according to Bradshaw, is that it will be fuller next year due to the odd year pattern.

Despite southern Vermont's turnout, the U.S. Apple Association won't have final reports on 2016 until after Nov. 1, Mark Seetin said.

Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.


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