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Posted: 03/19/14

PITFALLS OF WINTER. Above, peach trees at Westview Orchards sit amidst inches of snow. Growers are expecting damage to their peach crops due to multiple below zero days this winter, though they won't be sure of the extent until blooming begins.

(Observer photos by Chris Gray)

Peach growers concerned
about frigid winter temps

Observer Staff Writer
      Paul Blake, co-owner of Blake's Orchard, said there isn't much fruit growers can do during this cold winter but cross their fingers when it comes to peaches.
       "I think it'll be an extremely light crop of peaches, if there are any, this year," he said.
       Local orchards will determine in the coming months if freezing weather has damaged their peach crops to minimal levels. At least five different extreme temperature events have taken place this winter, including the most recent on March 2-3.
       With temperatures only averaging about 20 degrees this winter, fruit trees for peaches may suffer to the point of there being no crop this year.
       According to Michigan State University (MSU) Extension experts, most fruits can endure zero degrees Fahrenheit, while peaches or grapes can withstand -10 degrees before damage occurs.
       Blake said typical methods for protecting buds like wind machines are ineffective in such cold temperatures since there isn't enough warm air to heat the plants.
       "They can't handle temperatures 20 below zero," he said. "There is nothing we can do in the wintertime with those hard temperatures."
       On the other hand, MSU Extension experts say wind chills do not affect plants, meaning days that felt like -30 degrees due to wind gusts won't play a role in any damage, as plants are typically at the temperature of the air around them.
       Blake is one of many Michigan growers who had a bumper crop last year, so there is already an expectation that the trees won't produce as much fruit this year. He said it is too early to determine the extent of the damage, with the bloom expected in mid-May.
       "We all remember two years ago when we had nothing, and I'm sure that is on the back of everyone's mind," he said.
       Abby Jacobson, co-owner of Westview Orchards, said there will likely be damage this year, with at least four nights of -14 degrees or below. She said her operations will have a better idea in late April.
       "We don't want to say there is no crop," she said. "There has been some damage, but we might not have to thin as much."
       Thinning a tree removes extra blooms so the remaining fruit can grow large and not stress out the plant. The problem is that the huge amounts of snow and cold temperatures have prevented workers from doing their normal pruning schedules.
       Jacobson said, though, that the snow is a blessing in disguise, as it insulates the trees and other crops like strawberries, protecting them from the bitter cold.
       "We just have to get through to the spring," she said. "I think everyone is looking forward to spring."
       Bill Verellen of Verellen Orchards is among those waiting for warm temperatures, though he isn't as worried about the crops. He said he would have a better idea in the coming weeks on how bad his peach trees were affected, and anticipates a bloom in early April.
       "There are a ton of buds out there now," he said. "The trees form buds in July and August for the following year, so it just depends on their health at that time."
       All the growers agreed that peaches may be damaged, but their other crops like strawberries, apples and raspberries are expected to endure the harsh winter weather.
       "They'll take a lot more cold," Verellen said.
       MSU Extension reports Michigan plants typically need 1,000 hours of chilling between 35-45 degrees Fahrenheit, and once this is complete, the plants grow when warm temperatures return. However, they lose this cold hardiness and go back to the zero-degree threshold during days above freezing temperatures.

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