Apple crops at risk for second straight year after another late freeze

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DANVILLE, Ind.––Calvin Beasley, owner of Beasley’s Orchard in Danville, spent most of Wednesday checking on his apple trees and hoping against a repeat of 2020.

“We were all really, really looking forward to this year and I hope we don’t have a crop taken away from us again,” Beasley said.

The late freeze this week is putting apple growers like Beasley on edge because apple trees are currently at a crucial stage of pollination when the blooms are susceptible to damage from cold weather. And just a couple degrees, one way or the other, can make all the difference.

“At open bloom, 28 degrees is the temperature when you’re going to start to see damage,” Beasley said. “If you get down to 25, 24, you’re looking at about a 90-percent loss.”

Other conditions like wind and cloud cover can also play a role. Depending on the conditions, a layer of snow can actually help insulate the blossoms against colder surrounding air, Beasley said.

Last year, a late freeze on May 9 wiped out most of central Indiana’s apple crops. This year, growers were anticipating a strong return bloom to help them bounce back from that. Two consecutive nights of below freezing temperatures could put that at risk.

“Doesn’t just hurt financially, it hurts emotionally,” Beasley said.  “We have a whole team of people that works year round to keep these trees and the rest of the farm in great shape, healthy. To have it wiped out in one night is just cruel, it hurts us.”

The good news, according to Anderson Orchard co-owner Iran Sterling, is that the trees are in heavy bloom right now. That means even a substantial loss of crops could still result in a profitable season.

“With the blooms we have now, if we had 10 percent of them make it uniformly on the tree, I think we’d be pretty ecstatic about that,” Sterling said. “I mean it’s a gamble. We’re playing with mother nature, so it’s a risk.”

“I’m optimistic that we will be able to retain at least 35, 40 percent of our crop,” Beasley said.

Sterling says he’s already finding blooms that are showing damage from the cold weather.

The next few days will give a better idea of how much damage is being done this week. Growers are taking sample blooms from trees and looking for discoloration inside. Beasley expects to have a clear picture of the situation by Saturday or Sunday.

Until then, he and other apple growers will be watching their trees and the temperatures very closely.

“It doesn’t get any easier, but it is something you have to have the stomach for if you’re going to be in this business,” Beasley said.  

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