A lengthy freeze in the Pacific Northwest hit tree fruit crops hard recently, but experts say they still expect the region to produce a marketable harvest this year.
Different geographic locations in the region vary in elevation and temperature, so the level of frost damage differed significantly from orchard to orchard.
“The impression I am getting is that this year's frost season has been more extensive than has been seen in the last 15 years,” said Kirk Mayer, chairman and manager of the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Washington Growers Clearing House Association, a nonprofit tree fruit growers' association that represents approximately 2,200 Washington growers. Mayer added that prior to the cold snap, growing conditions had been excellent.
“A difference of a couple degrees can determine whether a grower has minor or significant damage.”
Damage estimates at this point vary widely, as assessments are still being conducted. The Pear Bureau Northwest, Milwaukie, Ore., has heard damage estimates ranging from 5% to 50% of tree fruit crops.
“While we will have a marketable crop of fresh pears in the upcoming season as an industry, many individual growers were hit hard, and it will be devastating to them,” said Kevin Moffitt, president and chief executive officer of the Pear Bureau Northwest.
While it appears there will be enough pears to harvest for the upcoming season, the smoother and lighter skins of pears make them more susceptible to frost, which can deform and mark them, making them less profitable for growers and less visually appealing to shoppers. The Hood River area in Oregon, for example, has been reporting less damage to its pear crop, but the cold weather will most likely result in some marking of the fruit when it is harvested, according to Moffitt.
“[This] may mean less top-grade fruit and more second-grade fruit than average,” Moffitt said.
“The second-grade fruit will still be tasty, but may have some cosmetic issues and therefore will return less money to the grower.”
Much of the damage appears to have been in the Yakima, Wash., area, and there are reports of damage up into the growing areas north of Wenatchee as well, Moffitt told SN.
Shortly after the freeze, the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association was placing total crop damage estimates in the 40% range, according to Charles Pomianek, director of the WVTA. The association represents the storage operators, packers and marketers of north central Washington on regulatory and legislative issues, mainly at the state level. WVTA also tabulates the movement of crops out of storage and through marketing channels, keeps track of export destinations and estimates the balance of tree fruit on hand and in storage.
“The apple crop damage is still being evaluated, but looks to be in the 10%-15% range, [with] pear damage in the 30% range,” Pomianek said.
“As always, some growers have been hit much harder than others.”
The cherry crop also appears to have suffered significant damage, according to Keith Mathews, executive director for the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.
“The hardest-hit areas are generally around and southeast of Yakima, and will likely limit availability at the end of June,” Mathews said, adding that it appears that the northern districts fared better than the Yakima region, but he noted that reports indicate The Dalles area in Oregon was also impacted.
“Good promotable volumes on cherries should be available to retailers, but growers may deserve more flexibility from retail customers,” he said. “There could be an overall reduction of 30% or more.”
In terms of apples, the Red Delicious crop will probably be the most impacted, and Washington will struggle to deliver apples as large as it has been able to in the past, Mathews told SN.
“Indications in March that Washington might continue to push to new record production volumes in apples have been dashed, and there is a strong likelihood now that Washington's production could retreat to volumes lower than in the last five years,” Mathews said.
“It is just so very difficult at this preliminary stage to set some ‘million box’ number on the table. The best guess — and that is truly a guesstimate at this time — is that the overall crop of fresh apples has been reduced by 20%-25%.”
Not only will the crop damage affect growers, but efforts to save their crops also proved to be very energy-intensive and costly.
“Growers' propane costs are skyrocketing and are expected in many cases to be double and triple the usual cost, costing individual growers thousands of dollars in their attempts to reduce damage and/or save their individual crops,” Mayer said, adding that one major propane dealer in Eastern Washington ran out of propane during the freeze.
Mathews also noted the propane costs, stating that growers have “spent an inordinate amount of money to heat and wind-protect their orchards with propane at $2.15, plus or minus, a gallon — and of course, [they] use water in many cases to try to add heat to an orchard as the water freezes.”
By putting water on a tree, a grower can cover the tree with a sheet of ice, insulating the tree and its branches at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, even if the surrounding air gets colder.
The damage appears to be limited to early buds and blossoms. Not much damage to the trees themselves has been reported, so the issue may be for this year's harvest only and not for the long term, Moffitt said.
“Bottom line is, consumers and retailers should have access to a crop similar to last year, with the exception that some earlier varieties of cherries and apples may be a little more scarce,” Mayer said.
An early estimate on the percentage of the apple crop damaged by the recent freeze.