Monday, March 26, 2012

Cooked and frozen - the looming disaster for our tree fruit

A little more than 5 years ago, I wrote a blog piece called Global Cooking. Maybe not so much for other readers at the time, but for myself. To document a winter that essentially wasn't happening, with early January temperatures in the 40s and 50s. Using a chart from the Weather Underground website, I wrote, "Today is the 26th consecutive day of above normal temperatures here. Every day during these past 26 has had a high temperature at least 7 degrees above normal." I also noted, among that year's oddities, that I had harvested broccoli in the garden on New Year's day.

5 years before that, in 2002, when 4 consecutive mid-April days in the 80s caused the fruit trees to bloom prematurely. But a frost nearly immediately thereafter completely wiped out that year's cherry crop, and reduced the apple crop by almost 90%.

None of this prepared us for 2012. Here is the weather chart for March, 2012 from the Weather Underground site. The average high temperature for March 22nd is 42 degrees Fahrenheit. We got 84. The average low is 27. Ours was 53.

People throughout the area were in shorts and t-shirts. I walked outside at 10am, multiple days. Every evening was punctuated by a nice game of frisbee catch with Elianna on the front lawn. I posted a facebook entry with pictures of everything in bloom, labeled, "The disaster of 2012." There was little use in trying to convince people that the extreme warmth was not a good thing.

Oh, we rushed to make sure the trees were sprayed, and breathed a sigh of relief when they came on the 21st. We talked about opening the pool on April 1st this year... no joke.

By the end of the week, the crocuses had come out and were gone. The forsythia was in full glory. The magnolia was opening. Daffodils, hyacinths, and even tulips bloomed. Frogs sang loudly, every night. And then the cherry blossoms came out, in full. One full month early. The apples were not more than another couple days away, and the pears not much further.

Cherries, apples, and other tree fruit, once exposed, do not survive frosts well. As I found at one site: Dormant cherry trees withstand cold temperatures, but as the buds begin to swell and open, the tree is more vulnerable. Fully open blossoms are the most susceptible to damage. If temperatures drop below 27 degrees Fahrenheit, the buds will die, producing no fruit for the season.

That's generous. In my experience, there's severe damage even with a light frost; below 30 degrees, they're history. And the average low for West Bloomfield, the last week of March, is 31.

Tomorrow evening, the low temperature here is predicted to be 28 degrees. Assuming that prediction -- or another one for later in the week -- is accurate, our cherry crop will be wiped out. We have no rational or affordable defenses against it.

We're just home owners with trees, really. We didn't plan it; we happened to buy a house and didn't even know what it had. The first year, we had the same repeated experience: I think we can eat these! The cherries and apples, the cider, etc., have become tightly integrated pleasures of our lives, and of the kids' childhood. Losing the fruit for a season, as we did 10 years ago, will hurt... but we'll get over it. We may even get a side benefit: The brown rot that had been progressively impacting the cherry crop in recent years, may be killed off or at least reduced. But that's not much of a trade.

For Michigan fruit farmers and farmers in other nearby states and provinces, I can only imagine the scope of the disaster.

Now, I don't know if the 10 consecutive days of 70+ degree temperatures here, or the 3 consecutive days in the 80s -- all records for March -- are a result of Global Warning.

But I do know the price we'll have to pay for having the temperatures in the 80s when the calendar still said it was winter.

Addendum: This article that Lori received from MSU Extension as a Master Gardener, discusses the record-breaking warmth. It doesn't discuss the impact on fruit trees, but does say, "further cold weather at some point in the next several weeks is virtually a certainty."
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