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Local growers sweating out early spring, as warmth continues

Ray Porter examines a leaf on one of his apple trees. Photo by David Fleet. (click for larger version)
March 21, 2012 - Atlas Twp.-Ray Porter examined the tiny green leaves that recently emerged on one of his apple trees.

"I've had dreams like this before where the leaves come out in March—then I'd wake up," said Porter, third generation apple grower and owner of Porter's Orchard, 12060 Hegel Road.

"It's no dream now—the chance of cold weather is still very great. The last full moon and the chance of frost is possible until the end of May—two months from now."

While most area residents have been basking in record temperatures for most of March, Porter and other fruit farmers are sweating out the consecutive 70 and 80 degree days for reasons other then just high humidity.

Porter reported that the green tips of the leaves should not come out until about April 15 with full blossom April 28, but that's not the case here. The green has been out on the majority of his 15 acres of apple and fruit trees since about March 20.

"I guess the trees and plants don't care if the calendar says March. At this rate, transparent apples will be ready in June—strawberries in May," he said.

Porter said that apple blossoms can survive down to about 28 degrees and little green apples are good to about 32 degrees before the frost kills or stunts their growth.

"We've been through this before," said Porter."Two years ago we had no crop—a late frost wiped all the apples out. We get through, purchase apples from other growers in the state. That takes care of our customers for cider and other apple products. However, a lot depends on just how widespread the frost is—some areas may not get hit by the frost or some growers may even try to stave off the cold."

There are several remedies available to defend against cold, including smudge pots and a cold air drain system that uses fans to pull frost out of the orchards.

"These systems can work," said Porter. "However they are both very costly and labor intensive to operate and maintain."

Diane Smith, interim executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said the concerns are reflected across the midwest.

"Everything is a month early and has prompted many concerns for the growers," she said. "At this point, we just can't anticipate anything bad will happen. Fruit growers are a bit of gamblers already, they are so dependent on the weather. It's wait and see, hoping and praying for the best."

"What growers are saying is if they get through until May without a frost, the odds are in their favor," she said. "That means only an early crop of apples, no quality issues. For all we know, it's going to be another great year like 2011. It's not just limited to Michigan—Ohio, New York, Indiana and Pennsylvania are in the same boat. Some of those states are even ahead of us here."

"Right now there are some great apples from last year in the stores. We can only hope for the best."

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