Fewer apples expected in Michigan this fall due to spring freeze

Late April freeze has put many Midwest apple crops at risk this season
Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 7:09 PM EDT
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OTTAWA LAKE, Mich. (WTVG) - Bennett’s Orchard in Ottawa Lake is one of nearly 800 family-run apple orchards in Michigan, but some 15 million trees in those orchard rows statewide were put at serious risk back in April.

“We were watching 13abc Weather and that forecast kept dropping to 27 degrees, 26 degrees,” Curt Ovall said. “When it gets down to 27 degrees for an extended period of time, you’ll lose maybe 10% of your crop. If it gets to 26 degrees, you’ll lose 90%, so it’s that finicky.”

With some forecasts at 25° or lower that night, Ovall had the idea of lighting “Swedish torches” for warmth, making for striking images on a cold April night, especially with the helicopter hovering above.

“The helicopter will pull warmer air that’s a bit higher and push it down,” Ovall said, “and also blow the colder air away from the trees.”

Friends and strangers showed up that night to offer heaters and hands to chop wood, keeping the orchard just warm enough to be saved.

“People just started showing up -- a lot of people I’ve never met, from 3 or 4 streets down -- dropping off their heaters saying, ‘I’m here to help, what can I do?’” Ovall said. “The readings we had that night outside the orchard -- 23, 24, 25 degrees -- it would’ve been a 90% to 100% kill on everything. We ended up saving 70%, at least. The weather patterns in this area change so much if you’re at the airport or by the lake. Some of the orchards, if they didn’t do anything, they’re looking at a big loss.”

That may well be one of the few apple success stories in the state this spring. An estimated 22 million bushels were produced in Michigan last year, but some projections have a 17% drop for 2021. The Michigan Apple Committee released their 18.25-million bushel projection late last week, for a state which is typically 3rd in the nation for apple production (behind Washington and New York).

Ovall says the fact they even have a product to sell this fall makes their spring efforts worthwhile.

“We can take that and sell it in apples, we can crush it into cider, we can ferment it into hard cider,” Ovall said. “If we have something to sell, it’ll make it worth it.”

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