Apple growers enduring a season that's rotten to the core
JANESVILLE This year has been something of a nightmare for apple growers.
In March, unseasonably warm weather prompted apple trees to bloom early, putting the crop at least three weeks ahead of schedule in much of the county. Unfortunately, record-setting low temperatures in April walloped those same blossoms, wiping out half, sometimes more, of farmers' crops.
"Trees stay dormant until the warm weather begins, and normally that's not until April," said Bill Stone, vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Apple Growers. "The problem is that we had 80-degree weather in March. That sort of fooled Mother Nature into thinking spring was here."
Stone said a direct correlation exists between temperature sensitivity and development of a tree's buds. After a certain stage of bud development, temperatures below 27 or 28 degrees can wreak significant havoc.
Stone's operation, Brightonwoods Orchard in eastern Walworth County, saw temperatures fall to 25 or 26 degrees nearly 10 times in April.
This year has been "terrible" for apple farmers across the state, Stone said. He's heard of some farmers along the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin anticipating a complete loss.
"Several orchards are just not going to open," he said.
Crop insurance is not a likely failsafe, either.
"Most people insure their crop for hail, but not for cold," Stone said. "And I don't think very many growers have insurance."
Rob Ten Eyck, a fifth-generation apple farmer in Brodhead, expects to lose roughly two-thirds of his crop this year.
"The cold, the dry and the heat has done a number on us," he said.
Climatic complications have been mounting for Ten Eyck all year.
"We had a touch of hail with some rain on Memorial Day, and then that was the last rain we got for months," he said.
And then there's the drought.
"We haven't irrigated for several years, but we're irrigating this year," Ten Eyck said. "Just like other crops like beans and corn, apples need a good inch of rain a week to come along."
Lisa Jess has 850 trees on five acres at Jess's Apple Orchard in Beloit. She, too, has suffered loss.
"We probably lost 60 percent of our crop," she said.
Like other growers, the atypical spring and dry summer has caused nothing but problems.
"The apples that did survive, perhaps they bloomed after the freeze and did make it through, some of them have been hurt by the drought," Jess said.
High spring temperatures brought out blooms six weeks early at the Apple Hut in Beloit. The freezing temperatures that followed knocked out the lower orchard, where temperatures bottomed out. The trees there didn't give any apples, meaning the orchard will not be offering U-Pick apples this year.
Carrie Brockhaus, owner and operator of a 13-acre orchard, said she hasn't seen a season this bad for the apple crop in 30 years. She estimated her orchard has lost roughly half its crop.
"All we can really do is grin and bear it," she said.