Warm spell could mark another disaster for fruit trees

  • Robert Perkins stands under one of his red reliance peach trees at Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield on Tuesday. Perkins said the trees’ bud sizes are right where they should be this time of year and the threat of frost is always present. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • Small buds are seen on one of the red reliance peach trees at Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield on Tuesday.

  • Robert Perkins inspects the buds on one of his peach trees at Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield on Tuesday. Recent weather has raised concerns that the Northeast could see a repeat of last year’s pattern – warm temps followed by a cold snap – which devastated crops. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The recent record and near-record high temperatures have the region’s fruit-growers on edge, fearful that a return to cold temperatures might bring a repeat of last year’s disaster, when the peach crop was destroyed.

“I’m almost 70 years old and I’ve been farming since I was old enough to start, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Robert Perkins of Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield.

Fruit trees go through a process called hardening in the fall as temperatures drop, then they slowly wake up as temperatures rise in early spring. Commercial fruit trees can deal with wintertime warm spells such as the traditional “January thaw,” but last winter was so warm that trees overreacted. They produced buds in February that were vulnerable to a severe cold snap in March, which harmed apple trees and killed virtually all peach buds in northern New England.

It’s unclear how much budding has started due to the recent crazy weather – Concord beat the high temperature record for at least two days, while more than 100 cities on the East Coast set all-time highs for any day in February – and how much damage a future cold snap might do.

“It’s how warm it was, how cold it gets, and how fast it happens,” said George Hamilton, an educator with UNH Cooperative Extension.

“If we go up to 70 then a day later we’re down to 10 degrees, that could be enough of a difference to cause damage,” he said. “If we go to 70 and it takes three weeks to go down to 10 degrees, then chances of damage are reduced.”

Either way, May-like weather in February is worrisome, especially since cold weather is expected to return this weekend – with temperatures possibly falling close to 10 degrees at night, a temperature that Hamilton says might damage buds in their current state.

“Yeah, we’re concerned. Is there anything we can do about it? Not really,” said Diane Souther at Apple Hill Farm in Concord, which also grows peaches.

The farm has a wind machine that can move warm air around to keep peach trees from freezing, she said, but that works only in certain weather patterns and certain stages of budding.

“There’s really nothing we can do,” she said. “It’s not like a greenhouse, or a crop you can throw a cover over. We have to wait and see.”

Fruit trees aren’t the only crop affected. The sap run in maple trees, which requires below-freezing temperatures at night, virtually stopped during the warm spell, which may hurt maple syrup production.

And while farmers are always used to uncertainty and changing conditions, there’s an underlying concern that the climate will alter to the point that their practices are outdated.

Chuck Souther at Apple Hill Farm pointed to a pretty basic attribute: Where the farm planted its peach orchard.

“They’re on a south-facing slope, for all that sunshine. That was an advantage ... but maybe now it’s a disadvantage.

“We were always concerned that it was absolute cold that would hurt the peaches, but maybe it’s going to be this issue of warming February and March. So maybe a north-facing slope (to reduce the effect of warm spells) would be a better deal,” he mused.

He added, “We’re in kind of uncharted territory as to what this all means.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)