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Apples to be in shorter supply

Anyone planning to go apple picking this fall should call U-pick farms ahead of time, as Mother Nature wasn’t kind this year, leaving only half of Ontario’s usual apple crop.

A harsh winter, dry spring and late frost left apple trees in rough shape, and unable to produce as much as Ontarians are looking to buy.

Charles Stevens, Ontario Apple Growers chair, says usually apple growers deal with one weather-related problem per year, and they can manage that.

“But this year we had many, many an extreme weather issue that caused problems with the apple crop. This past winter, January and February were extremely cold and they weakened the trees extremely and there were some trees even in the Georgian Bay district,  young trees that were actually killed by the cold,” Stevens said.

He doesn’t see there being a shortage of apples just yet. But come winter, they might be harder to come by and more expensive. The first major weather event that hurt the trees was a freezing cold winter. They were weakened going into the spring.

“An apple tree’s like a groundhog. It gets all its reserves of sugar and carbohydrates to stay alive during the winter. The harsher the winter is the more those resources are used up. So in the springtime when they go into bloom, that’s the maximum amount of stress that’s on a tree. It’s kind of like a woman giving birth, that’s the way I put it,” Stevens said.

Martin’s Family Fruit Farm owner Steve Martin says the last two years have been good for apple growers and this year’s weather issues are nowhere near as bad as in 2012 when there was only a 15 per cent apple crop across Ontario.

Steve Martin expects to see normal supplies this fall.[Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
Steve Martin expects to see normal supplies this fall. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
“Right now you hardly notice it, other than there are less apples to pick. We obviously have fewer pickers hired to pick them. It doesn’t seem that we’re any less busy at this time of year. Where it could have some effect obviously is late winter, early spring, and into next early summer. There could certainly be somewhat of a shortage of Ontario apples around,” Martin said.

Of the five apple districts in Ontario, four of them experienced an extremely dry May. Essex County was the odd man out, seeing excess moisture. Because of the lack of moisture in the ground during bloom and just after bloom, the trees were in worse condition by the time the frost happened on May 23.

Garden experts will advise you not to plant tomatoes or any sensitive plants before the 24th of May. They were definitely right this year, with the frost that damaged the apple trees happening the day before.

“It was the combination of the dryness and that frost that gave us the major impact that we’re dealing with today. We call that frost event a dry freeze. Because moisture gives off heat and because we didn’t have that moisture in the trees, they were suffering from a lack of moisture, nothing in the ground. The dew point, that’s what the scientists call it, was minus six or greater. That really hit us hard. It exemplifies being dry. It exemplifies the low temperature damage,” Stevens said.

If they would have had an inch of rain the week before, the apple crop would be in a much better state. May was followed by a wet June, which didn’t cause many problems.

In his 40 years of apple growing, this is the second largest frost damage he’s seen. What makes things worse is the worst frost damage in those four decades was only three years ago.

“All farmers have a bad year because of a weather issue. Usually Mother Nature will give you four, five years of happy crops to recoup and rebuild. That hasn’t happened. We were knocked down even harder in 2012 with only 20 per cent of an apple crop. This year we have half an apple crop,” Stevens said.

He notes a lot of the apples produced have been reduced to a juice grade because they’re small and misshapen, or have frost rings. This means there are probably less than 50 per cent of the usual fresh apples for sale.

And as can be expected in a world of supply and demand, the price is going to be higher this year for Ontario apples. He doesn’t expect it to peak quite as high as in 2012, but the low Canadian dollar will also cause a negative impact.

“Today it’s very difficult for any marketer, or even the United States, to pump apples into Ontario because of our dollar, a 30 per cent extra cost. If you were in the United States and had extra apples and Loblaws picks up the phone and says ‘I’ll pay you this price,’ and you say ‘well you know there’s a big difference in the dollar. I need to up my price by 30 per cent if I’m going to be shipping anything’ and they may say ‘no can do,’” Stevens explained.

This created problems for the half a dozen major packers of Ontario’s apples. They can’t just hop across the border to buy apples to keep their operation going and their customers satisfied. But, they’re able to buy apples from other provinces like Quebec, BC, and Nova Scotia. Those markets are relatively small compared to Ontario who produces at least a third of the apples in Canada.

“One of the problems with this frost also is it hammered some of our most in-demand apples, Honeycrisp and Gala and Ambrosia. Those three varieties got hit harder, so there are probably less than 50 per cent of the crop for those. Whereas MacIntosh, I’d say there are probably 65 per cent. There are more MacIntosh out there than other apples,” Stevens said

Which apples prosper and which apples fail depends on timing. Apple varieties come into bloom and produce at different times.

Apple growers are divided into commercial growers who market their apples to chain stores, and smaller growers who sell through a farm market, on their farm, or at a U-pick.

“The pick-your-own operations are running into serious problems because the consumer doesn’t watch the weather and they don’t pick up the phone and call. They go ‘oh we’re going to go pick apples at so-and-so’s this weekend,’ drive into the driveway and they have no apples. Or the price is up and they don’t know why,” Stevens said.

This means a double loss for the grower who’s seeing a loss in income alongside unhappy customers. He recommends calling ahead before going to pick apples, to ensure they have enough supply.

And it wasn’t just apples that were hit hard this year. Numerous other plants were affected, like strawberries and grapes.

“My neighbour planted corn, he got his in early some of it. He had to replant 300 acres of corn. It just fried right off. I’ve never seen that in the history of my life or my dad’s life. It just went brown. There were fields of soybeans that were killed in the Norfolk area, the drought affected the hay. There was no hay. Usually the month of May is wet and it produces a great crop of hay for harvest in the month of June. It didn’t happen,” Stevens said.

He adds there have been extreme weather events across the country this year from dry, hot weather in BC to an extended icy winter in Nova Scotia.

Farmers have to adapt to change and to our changing environment. Apple growers are buying more protection for their crops from frost, he says.

“That’s the solution, you have to keep changing. If your environment has changed, you better adapt. If not, you’re not going to do very well,” Stevens said.

The ideal apple growing weather would be a winter with lots of snow, but not extreme freezing temperatures, followed by a moist spring and a lack of frost. Summer should be warm and sunny with moisture here and there, and then a cool, sunny fall to ripen and harvest the fruit.

“I would love to see the industry grow because we only supply half of the apples that are consumed in Ontario and we could grow and sell more apples in Ontario. That’s good for Ontario because we create jobs and the consumer gets more of what’s growing right in their backyard. That’s a win-win. But with having two major weather instances this close together, it’s very difficult to have some extra money to plant that next acreage of apples,” Stevens said.

Martin has Gala, MacIntosh, Honeycrisp, Ambrosia, Empire and Cortland apples for sale at his store right now. Ambrosia and Empire are just starting to become available. He says customers will see the normal amount of apples they’ve come to expect at his store, but that could change by spring depending on what kind of winter Mother Nature throws our way.

“I will have apples in our retail store all year round, I can guarantee that,” Martin said.

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