Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 17, 2014

Harsh winter leaves fruit growers wary

By JANICE BENSON Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY -- It’s winter pruning time for local wine grape and fruit growers, but this year, the frigid weather and plentiful snowfall are providing challenging conditions in the orchards and vineyards.

Even so, area farmers know they have to roll with the punches.

“There’s a lot of rumble about what this long, cold snap could do,” said Paul Hubbell, president of the Grand Traverse Fruit Growers Council and owner of Orchard View Farm in Williamsburg. “But I’m born and raised in this and I’ve seen a lot of cold winters and snow. This is the kind of winter I remember growing up with. The bays always froze when I was a kid.”

“I’m not that concerned yet about my trees,” Hubbell said. “The best thing for the fruit industry is to have a normal winter — and normal is kind of hard to remember — but this is more like an old-fashioned winter, with a couple of feet of snow in the orchards and good moisture and insulation for the roots.”

Hubbell said fruit trees can withstand some pretty cold temperatures, but it all depends on a tree's health going into the fall.

“If a tree wasn’t very healthy to begin with, there’s more chance of damage than in a healthy tree. Now if we get 15-below wind chills, that could definitely have an effect on some buds,” he said.

He’s been pruning his apple trees all winter, but plans to wait until the coldest part of the season is over before pruning cherry trees, which are more susceptible to chilly temperatures.

“The one thing we don’t want is an early spring,” Hubbell said. “The longer we can hang onto the season, the better off we will be.”

Ben Bramer, owner of Agrivine on Old Mission Peninsula, would like to start pruning grapes, but the weather is holding him back.

“We usually start pruning by now, but there’s so much snow pack and a lot of what we want to prune is under the snow,” Bramer said. “The vines are 24 inches off the ground and covered in snow, so there’s not much we can do. It makes you a little nervous, because we need to get started.”

The cold temperatures also are a concern.

“The freezing of the bays is a double-edged sword. It will shut off the snow, which is good at this point. We might be able to do some pruning now, but colder temps could settle in. The water from the bays is what protects the area from getting too cold,” he said.

Bramer said he’s lost some of the fruitful buds on his vines, but he’s learned it’s Mother Nature’s way of thinning out a crop.

“It’s hard to tell until the end of the season, but we’ve lost a little bit. Temperatures as low as nine below zero will wipe out the whole crop and we hit seven or eight below for about an hour,” Bramer said. “I think we’re okay, but we don’t want it to get quite that cold or it will wipe out the fruitful buds.”

He isn’t as worried about a March warm-up as Hubbell.

“Grapes are slower to react when things warm up,” Bramer said. “They weren’t affected when we had the early warm-up two years ago. I’m more concerned with a frost in April or May when the shoots are tender.”

“Those recent warm, milder winters gave us record-breaking crops and it’s been great, but in northern Michigan, this kind of cold weather is what we have to expect,” he said. “The moment you think you know what you’re doing, Mother Nature throws a wrench into it. You’ve got to farm every year like it’s a new experience.”