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Slim Picking: The Deep Freeze of 2023 and What It Means For Finger Lakes Fruit Growers

Slim Picking: The Deep Freeze of 2023 and What It Means For Finger Lakes Fruit Growers

 On the evening of May 17, the Finger Lakes Region of NY experienced an extreme freeze event. Farms in our region saw temperatures ranging from a low of 21 degrees in Marathon to a "high" of 30 degrees in Hector. 

After speaking with growers from across the region,  it is clear that there was widespread damage to the 2023 fruit crop. We heard from a few growers that it was the worst late-season damage they'd ever seen in their decades-long careers.

Damage was severe because temperatures were abnormally low for mid-May. There is speculation that the high-altitude smoke from the Canadian wildfires may have contributed to the low temperatures, but this has not been confirmed. Fruit trees, berry bushes, strawberries, and grapevines were at sensitive developmental stages, and could easily suffer damage. Grapes were nearly at bloom, blueberries were in full bloom, apples were at the end of bloom with fruit set, pears were post-bloom with fruit set, stone fruit were post-bloom with fruit set, and strawberries were in full bloom.

Just a few degrees in temperature can lead to total cross loss. Microclimates and fruit variety played a significant role in whether a farm's crops were spared. Some farmers lost a block of grapes in one location, but grapes planted in a nearby location suffered minimal damage. Others saw severe damage to one variety of grape, while more cold-hardy varieties were spared. 

Some farmers employed wind machines, row cover, overhead irrigation, or burned wet round bales of hay in between rows to blanket their farms in a layer of smoke in an attempt to save their crop. In some places, their efforts were successful. Elsewhere, attempts proved futile.

How does a farmer prepare for a once-in-a-career freeze event?

We wonder if it's possible to be truly prepared. 

On our own farm in Willseyville, we experienced devastating damage to our apple, raspberry, and blueberry crops across the orchard, regardless of variety. We cut open hundreds of baby apples to find dead, brown centers and damaged tissue in every single one (see photo, above). It's not yet clear whether our trees will abort their entire crop, or we will be left with an entire orchard of damaged, unsaleable fruit. Either outcome is bad news for our small farm, especially since we are still transitioning to our new location in Willseyville, and had planned on this being our first real crop on our young trees.

Not only were cultivated fruit crops damaged by the freeze; wild trees were also hit hard. The oaks had recently leafed out. Now, their leaves are crispy and brown. The hickory and butternut trees- toasted. To make matters worse, the Spongy Moth Caterpillars have recently hatched, and will soon feast on tree leaves. We anticipate widespread strain on our forests this year, and predict that the freeze will cause widespread shortage of wild nut crops that wildlife depend on to survive. 

While a year without a crop sounds like smooth sailing and a good year to take a mid-summer vacation, it can actually mean more work for farmers, especially those of us with younger orchards. Next year's crop is entirely dependent on this year's management of our trees and berry bushes. Regardless of whether our trees have fruit this year, we still need to manage weeds, disease, and insect pests all season long. 

Without a crop, our young apple trees will be triggered to put on immense vegetative growth this summer, which is leafy and succulent and not fruit-bearing. We will have to carefully manage our orchard by summer pruning and training branches (tying branches down) to reduce the vigor of our trees and promote flower bud formation. Rapidly growing apples and pears are more susceptible to fireblight, which was prevalent in our area last season, and can quickly kill young trees. When apple trees have fruit on them, the fruit naturally weighs down the branches, making them more fruitful the next year, and minimizing the need for summer pruning and training.  

Farmers are still assessing damage to their crops, but early predictions look like it will be slim picking this season. We feel fortunate to experience camaraderie in our farming community as we all mourn this season's loss. Undoubtedly, it will cost our local economy millions of dollars, and come with layoffs to farmworkers. Larger farms likely have crop insurance, but small farms like us just have to absorb the losses and carry on. We are thankful for all of the messages we have received of consolation and support!

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