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Frost free

A late spring cold snap spares local growers

Ray Porter of Porter’s Orchard, 12060 Hegel Road in Atlas Township, checks apple blossoms on Tuesday after a hard freeze May 13. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
May 15, 2013 - Michigan weather is notoriously unpredictable.

This has been glaringly evident in the past few weeks in this area as temperatures swung from the high 70s early in the month down to freezing in the early morning hours of May 13.

Area fruit crops seem to have escaped damage from the fickle weather.

At Middleton Berry Farm in Brandon Township, owners Bill and Barb Middleton turned on the sprinklers at 11 p.m., May 12 and ran the irrigation system over four acres of strawberries until 8 a.m., May 13.

"They are good," said Barb on Monday afternoon. "I just went and checked them. Sprinkling prevents frost damage. There is heat in the water, and it goes into the plants and keeps them from freezing. We keep it on until the sun is shining."

While this is the first time the Middletons have had to frost protect this year, they ran the irrigation systems six times during the month of April last year in order to avoid crop damage during freezing temperatures.

Apple crops are much harder to protect and last year, early blooming of trees caused by extremely warm March weather, followed by a hard freeze April 29, destroyed area apple crops and devastated fruit crops statewide.

Area crops seem to have escaped damage from the latest freeze.

"There is always a concern when the weather turns," said Ray Porter, owner of Porter's Orchard in Atlas Township. "(The apple trees) are in full bloom at this point, so they are very vulnerable right now. We did get some damage, but what we received is very minimal. It's a blessing because there are so many blossoms out there we really don't want all of them to become fruit anyway."

Apple growers usually report bumper crops following a year of poor harvests.

"We are still going to get a full crop if we have no more freeze events and get good pollinating weather, which we are due to get over the next few days," said Porter.

Matt Mosteiko, meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the low temperature for the early morning hours of May 13 was 26 degrees at the White Lake station. Temperatures 28 degrees and below are considered a hard freeze.

In Detroit, the temperature hit a low of 30, tying a record low set in 1971 for that date. In Flint, the low temperature Monday was 29 degrees, missing the record low by one degree, set May 13, 1946.

"We've had a lot of fluctuation," Mosteiko said. "A lot of hot and cold days for April and May. We have more amplified upper level patterns than normal, where we get in strong deep troughs, which brings cold air, to an amplified ridge, which brings warm air. Each of those patterns usually lasts 3-5 days, depending on jet stream how fast the system gets kicked along."

Mosteiko said in the next three months, weather forecasts call for above normal temperatures and precipitation near normal.

"It will be a warm summer with average rainfall," he said.

Long-term, Porter is considering ways to protect crops from weather extremes as he has lost three crops in the past six years.

"The weather has gotten so crazy with more and more freeze events," he said. "The trend is for more events like this. I don't have any frost protection in my orchard and it's something I am looking at real hard."

Porter said he is considering wind machines to bring down warmer layers of air, as well as irrigation systems or ways to apply heat.

"We're a long way from having apples in the barn," said Porter, who has seen a freeze event as late as May 27. "It's a long growing season, but things look promising and we escaped that one event, so we are very, very hopeful… Things look very favorable right now… I am expecting a limb buster—so many fruit it will break the limbs down. I am very excited."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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