Apple orchards still hurting from last winter’s cold

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

The last winter was rough on everyone, but if you were an apple orchard owner, the ravages of weather were even worse. The Rock River Times spoke with several area orchard owners to find out how they’ve been coping with elements beyond their control.

Curran’s Orchard, 6385 Kilburn Ave., Rockford, is a favorite place for residents to visit in the fall. We spoke with owner Pat Curran, and asked him, what has been happening at the apple orchard?

I think all the orchards in northern Illinois had flood damage from the cold and also the winter’s effect on trees,” said Curran. “It got down to -28 degrees. The airport tells you one thing, but in outlying areas, it’s colder than that — 5 to 6 degrees colder. We lost probably a few hundred trees. I think everybody did. But I don’t think the others got hit quite as hard as we did. But we have a whole lot of trees. To me, that’s never happened before. You might lose one or two, but not a couple hundred. And everybody did. The evidence of the damage is what we’re concerned about. We got hit probably worse than the others.”

TRRT: How do you deal with the damage?

Curran: “We pulled out the dead stuff, and we will replant as soon as we can.”

TRRT: How long will it take?

Curran: “About five years. We had 3,000 trees. Sometimes you lose buds because it’s too cold and the buds froze that will make the flowers. We saw some of that. The other thing that might be playing into the picture is that we all had a huge crop last year, so the trees tend to want to take a rest. Typically, they will tend to go biannual. The next year we will have this huge crop again, so we will get more apples off the trees. We thin apples off the trees because there are too many apples; you get many little ones and some big ones. You can’t have a lot of little apples or a few big ones.”

TRRT: Are there any steps you can take to prevent damage?

Curran: “Not really. The only steps we take for sure is, the university tells us you should not prune the trees when it’s below 15 degrees. You kind of watch when you prune. Fifteen degrees, we are not going to prune. You can prune them when it’s colder than that, but you risk bud damage. … Whenever you have a battle with nature, nature wins. It’s going to get cold and kill buds. Just like with ornamental trees around homes. And the bark on the trees actually froze and blisters somewhat from the cold — that’s why you lose trees because the cambium under the bark of the trees that holds it up — that’s where all the sap goes into the outer quarter-inch of the tree.”

TRRT: I hear the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting another rough winter.

Curran: “I don’t see how it can be as bad as the last one. It gets started early. … It was bad that we couldn’t get in to prune until March. I’ve got a big 4-by-4 tractor, and it just pushes snow. It drifts in the orchard. It’s knee deep, and it takes a while to go through it. We all suffered losses to some extent, some more than others. This orchard is along the side of a hill to stop the wind from desiccating the trees. I have four peach trees for myself. I don’t sell [fruit from them]. Those are way in back of the property by the barn. The peach trees didn’t die. The buds died, but the peach trees survived. The point is that it depends where your tree is. My peach trees are in front of the barn, protected from the north wind.”

Raoul Bergerson, owner of Valley Orchard, 811 E. State St., Cherry Valley, also spoke with us.

TRRT: What happened to you the last winter?

Bergerson: “All the orchards got hit. We lost [more than] a couple of trees. It wasn’t disastrous, but … I haven’t actually counted them — 100 or more. They were mostly older trees. We were planning on pulling them anyway next year. … We lost a number of trees, more than what you would normally lose. The winter was just too cold, and it was mostly on specific varieties; some were hardier than others. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it. We still have a good crop. I think it will be a good harvest this year.

In some ways, those trees that died, we will replace with different varieties that may be hardier. It all depends on what sells well and there is demand for. Some of the trees were varieties that were older. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it’s always hard to lose trees when you don’t have to.”

TRRT: Are there any steps you can take to prevent damage?

Bergerson: “No, it all depends on if there’s a decent or normal fall. The ground hardens up, the trees should be fine. I don’t anticipate this happening again. It’s just a combination of circumstances, a lot of snow and cold temperatures. That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen in 30 years. I’ve been more than 30 years in business. It has never happened prior to this. It was kind of a rare occurrence. I would guess, the farther south you went, the less damage there was. In this area, the weather was just right to cause the apple trees to die.”

Edwards Apple Orchard, 7061 Centerville Road, Poplar Grove, which suffered damage from the freak tornado that hit the region in January 2008, seems to have come through the last winter very well. We spoke with owner Barb Hall.

TRRT: Was it a rough winter for you last year?

Barb Hall: “No, not really. It was a really harsh winter. We lost a few trees. They were mostly older, but we still have 29,000 trees. It didn’t impact our business. Some of the trees we lost would have been replaced anyway because of their age. We are on a hill. Environment makes a difference, depending on where trees are planted. It can definitely be harsher for them.”

TRRT: Are you looking for a good harvest season?

Hall: Yes. We have a lovely crop.

TRRT: About how many different varieties do you have?

Hall: “Seventeen varieties of apples. They ripen throughout the season, late August to early November.

TRRT: What are some of the most popular varieties?

Hall: “It’s all preference, like with anything. People have their own preference. Some people like tart apples; some like sweet.”

TRRT: Any steps you are planning to take to protect the trees over winter?

Hall: “When you’re in farming, you learn to deal with the weather.”

The view from Wisconsin Apple Growers

The Rock River Times spoke with Anna M. Maenner, executive director of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, Waterloo, Wisconsin. Referring to interviews with local orchards, we asked her, have you received any reports of specific problems or people asking for advice on how to protect their apple trees?

It’s a little bit complicated,” she said. “There was a series of things that went together to create the environment that the trees went through last winter. Two years ago, we had that late frost. A lot of the trees that were in lots — susceptible stages — had a very poor harvest in 2012. … [A]pple trees are biennial bearers; they bear heavily one year and light the next. That’s how apple trees naturally grow. They will have a light harvest one year and heavy the next. In 2012, the late frost caused them to have a late harvest. In 2013, those trees naturally came back, and this year they had more apples. It was a really good harvest in the fall of 2013.

Having a really good harvest is taxing on the trees — it uses a lot of resources,” Maenner continued. “The trees went into the winter after a heavy harvest, so they were stressed. Then, we had this really long winter where the trees had to use a lot of resources. … So, some trees in the spring — some orchards … it’s not a statewide thing; it’s very specific. You can have an orchard here, and one 10 miles away, they have a different situation. It all depends on what happened at that geographic location. We had some orchards that experienced tree death in the spring because of the scenario that had been set up over the years. It was three years in a row. It was the cumulative effect of what happened three years ago that created the situation in the spring where some orchards lost trees because of the long, hard winter. Some orchards, it seemed like they were losing the trees that were prone to later harvest. They seemed to be the trees that were more affected. But it’s very interesting.

We talked to some orchards that were by Bayfield by Lake Superior,” she added. “They had no losses at all because they plant trees that were used to long, cold winters. But down here a lot of times, we can get by planting some trees that are more susceptible to the cold because we don’t always have these cold winters. We tend to see that the trees that had some mortality were the trees that were not used to handling the cold temperatures. Overall, on an average of looking at orchards over both parts of the state, they are having an average harvest this year. People always think that what happened yesterday is what affected it. But trees aren’t that way. It’s a larger part than what happens [to individual trees].”

From the Sept. 24-30, 2014, issue

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