Unseasonably warm weather is definitely causing some frayed nerves in the Gays Mills orchards these days.
There was period of seven days in March during which a new record high temperature was established each day. The unusually warm weather has resulted in early blooms of flowers, flowering bushes and now flowering fruit trees.
Cherry trees in the orchards are already in bloom, as are wild plum trees in the local woodland. Pussy willows bloomed weeks ago and lilacs are getting ready to bloom.
Then, there are the apple trees. Kickapoo Orchard owner Andy Meyer predicted the apple trees will begin blooming this weekend and the orchards should be in full bloom by next weekend, April 7-8. That’s about one full month before the anticipated bloom around Mother’s Day weekend in May.
Crawford County Ag Agent Vance Haugen largely agreed with Meyer’s assessment of the weather conditions. He also believes we are about three to four weeks ahead of where we would normally be at this time of year in the county.
Star Valley Flower owner John Zehrer agreed with the one-month–ahead assessment, based on what he is seeing in the fields at his operation in rural Soldiers Grove.
Haugen pointed out that soil temperatures in each of Iowa’s 99 counties are now over 55 degree. He noted that’s “unheard of this time of year.”
The ag agent cautioned that just because temperatures have been far above normal, does not mean they don’t have the capability of reverting to the average or even colder temperatures.
“Past performance is not a good predictor of future performance,” Haugen said. People believe just because it has been in the 80s, it has got to stay warm. No, it doesn’t.”
Meyer noted that record low temperatures for days in late March and early April are around 0 to 5 degrees.
Haugen does take some comfort in the warmer soil temperatures and points out that soil can act as a heat sink and help moderate colder temperatures.
What does an early bloom mean and why are local orchardists worried?
If temperatures drop below freezing while the trees are in bloom, part or all of the crop may be lost. Meyer said that at a temperature of 28 degrees about 10 percent of the crop would be killed. However, a temperature just four degrees colder at 24 degrees would kill 80 to 90 percent of the crop.
The crop is most susceptible to frost damage in the bud stage and once pollination has occurred and small apples begin to form they are less likely to be damaged by cold weather, but can still be harmed.
The bloom itself can last from five to 10 days. If temperatures were near 80 degrees, the bloom might last just five days, according to Meyer. Since the shorter bloom will limit the time the crop could be most damaged by frost, that’s what the orchard owners are hoping will happen.
However, even if the weather were to keep from reaching dangerous low temperatures, the early bloom will present other problems. The orchards generally use beehives placed in the orchards to facilitate the pollination. Around 60 hives are scheduled to arrive at Kickapoo Orchard on Aril 17, which is normally in plenty of time to pollinate the trees. This year it could be a week or two late.
Andy Meyer is seeking to have anyone with available beehives place them in the orchard now. He encouraged anyone with bees to call the orchard and make arrangements to place them.
Meyer also noted that university studies have indicated there are enough wild bees in the surrounding woods to pollinate the apple crop in Gays Mills. He chuckled a bit at the thought.
“This might be the year, we find out how true that idea is,” Meyer said.
And, if that’s not enough problems to drive the orchard owners crazy, there’s the harvest. With an early bloom and early fruit set, apples will be ready for harvest beginning in July.
“We could be done with the harvest by October 1,” Meyer said.
Would an early harvest be a problem?
Well, it most certainly could be. Apples require cool nights during the harvest to “color up.” July and August aren’t known for cool nights-that’s more of a September and October phenomenon.
Apple growing areas in New York and central Michigan were further along in the blossom than Gays Mills and were scheduled to experience colder temperatures already this week.
Vance Haugen, the ag agent, pointed out that it wasn’t just apple growers who are struggling with the unseasonably warm temperatures. Other specialty growers are also struggling. The warmer temperatures are throwing off harvests at Stony Point and Star Valley Flowers, according to Haugen.
“Bittersweet is one of our bigger crops and if the blossoms freeze, we could lose it,” Star Valley Flowers owner John Zehrer said.
The local grower was also concerned about ilex (winterberry), lilacs and snowball viburnum blooming early and then being hit by frost in the bloom stage. Zehrer explained the situation was very similar to the orchards. He expected more loss with colder temperatures if the crops are caught in an early bloom stage.
Star Valley Flowers hopes to harvest lilacs in the next 10 days, if they can avoid severe frost during that period.
Is there an upside to the early warm weather?
“Well, my house heating bill is lower,” Zehrer said. “Actually, it’s nothing you like to see.”