MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The sudden cold snap that interrupted Minnesota's warm spring five weeks ago doesn't appear to have been as big a disaster for the state's apple crop as first feared, but it still has left some growers hurting and worried.
The frost bit hard on the nights of April 9 and 10 while many apple trees were blooming unusually early. That will affect the size of the crop, but researchers and growers said Wednesday it looks like the losses won't be as bad as they could have been. They'll find out for sure in August and September when growers start picking their Zestars, SweeTangos, Honeycrisps, Haralsons and other popular regional varieties.
"There's no question that the crop has been impacted statewide. The question is whether there's a 15 percent reduction or an 80 percent reduction. The people I'm talking to are saying this isn't as bad as we thought," University of Minnesota apple breeder David Bedford said.
The Le Crescent area of far southeastern Minnesota, one of the top apple-growing regions of the state, is in fairly good shape, said Ralph Yates, owner of Fruit Acres and secretary of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association. Ridge-top orchards like his can expect "a pretty nice crop" but some colder, low-lying orchards there suffered losses with early-blooming varieties, he said.
"We've got a long ways to go until harvest," Yates said. "Fortunately at this point we do have a nice crop to work with."
For some growers, though, the damage is bad. It's giving heartburn to Mike Dekarski, owner of Apple Jack Orchards in Delano and president of the association. He was left with very few early-maturing Zestars and Chestnut Crabs, though he's still expecting a good crop of late-season Regents and Sweet 16s.
Dekarski said and several other growers he knows are dreading the "June drop," when trees go through a self-thinning and might ordinarily shed 10 percent of their fruit. He said he's heard from growers who thought they survived the frost but lost everything this past week.
Jacobson's Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake hired a helicopter both nights to fly patterns low over its trees and prevent the cold air from settling in. Co-owner John Jacobson said his family thinks it worked.
"Mother Nature certainly did deal us a little bit of a setback, but to what degree? It's going to be August and September when people see what made it and what didn't. I'm optimistic there will be apples out there," Jacobson said.
Thaddeus McCamant, a specialty crops management instructor at Northland Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes who's been visiting orchards across the state since the frost, said some growers he's seen have lost 75 percent of their crop. But he's seen others who should get a full crop if the weather cooperates for the rest of the summer.
That's a big if, as growers will attest.
Minnesota's largest orchard, Pepin Heights near Lake City, survived the frost in reasonable shape, said Tim Byrne, vice president for sales and marketing. The moderating effects of nearby Lake Pepin probably bought the orchard "a critical degree or two," so by the end of April he was expecting about 80 percent of a normal crop.
That changed May 2, when hailstorms pelted a long stretch of southern Minnesota and hammered one of Pepin Heights' farms. The focus at that property is triage, trying to protect the damaged trees from disease. Any apples that part of the operation produces will likely be good only for cider.
On the positive side, Byrne said, Pepin Heights has ties with growers in other states and Canada that should ensure adequate supplies for the supermarkets the company serves. And the Minnesota-grown crop should start arriving 2½ to 3 weeks ahead of schedule, probably around Aug. 15-20 for Zestars and SweeTangos.
"While we're not going to have as much fruit as we did last year, we should have enough fruit to take care of our best customers through the season, provided we don't get whammied again," Byrne said.
Yates said orchards in his area should be able to supply apples to other Minnesota growers who don't have enough for their own farm stores.
"They really need the support of their local customers to make it through what could be a difficult growing season for them," Yates said.