Hamilton fruit farmers brace for devastating season

Fruit farmers in Hamilton and the surrounding area are calculating their losses after a devastating frost.

Ontario agriculture minister visits to show support

Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin and farmer Richard Feenstra examine the apple blossoms. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)

Brenda Fletcher won't even walk down the rows of apple and pear orchards on her 37-acre farm tucked in southeastern Hamilton.

"It's too hard, just the depression from seeing it all," says Fletcher.

The Binbrook community farmer expects to lose 80 per cent of her apples — the majority of her orchard — and 100 per cent of the pears. The 48-year-old planned to retire from the physically punishing agriculture industry that's wreaked havoc on her back and neck, but now has to delay that as she dips into her savings. 

"I won't make any profit," she says.

Fruit trees across Ontario, Quebec and northeastern U.S. were damaged after the blossoms came out during unseasonably warm weather in March and then were hit by a series of below-zero nights the following month.

Brian Gilroy, a Meaford farmer and chair of the Ontario Apple Growers, says frost has "never affected the tree fruit industry to this degree before."

Agriculture minister visits

Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin toured a Beamsville-area apple orchard on Thursday. "We're here today to show our concern for the industry," said McMeekin. "We'll stand with you and get you through this."

The damage is evident when you cut open the apple fruitlets and see brown spots. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)

The minister acknowledged that the cold "seriously impacted" fruit crops this year, but cautiously added that it will take several weeks to know the extent of the damage. 

About 80 per cent of the province's apple crop has been affected and about 30 to 40 per cent of peaches, while cherry and plum crops suffered "virtually complete devastation," according to initial assessments by fruit industry groups.

"Most of the buds you see are dead," said Richard Feenstra, as the agriculture minister toured his family's 21-acre apple farm, Mountview Orchards.

Even those blossoms that don't have the blackened pistols that serve as the first external sign of damage might actually be dead or even deformed, which reduces profit, said Feenstra.

And he notes that even with small crops, farmers will have to invest money in ongoing care, such as pruning, trimming, spraying, fertilizing and irrigating the trees.

Fewer workers needed

Though Feenstra's family farm typically employs 12 to 15 workers in the summer, he expects to hire only five this year.

Fletcher is in a similar boat, with plans to employ up to two workers from the area compared to the usual half dozen.

Apple industry losses are already taking a toll on farm workers. Some off shore labourers in Georgian Bay were sent home and six packing plants significantly reduced the number of workers, says Mark Cripps, press secretary for the Ontario ministry of agriculture.

Customers looking to bite into a local apple may also be disappointed as shelves and stalls fill up with imported produce.

Fletcher, who regularly attends Hamilton's Ottawa Street farmer's market, says small crop yields could leave shoppers empty handed during the summer months and even into winter.

Production insurance damage reported by crop

Fruit Damage reports Percentage damage reported
Apples 101 72%
Grapes 39 14%
Peaches 32 40%
Pears 12 36%
Sweet cherries 13 72%
Sour cherries 15 68%
Plums 11 50%
Strawberries 4 25%

Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Agricorp program

Ontario produces about 40 per cent of apples grown in Canada, at a value of $63 million to farmers. 

The province's tender fruit crops, which includes peaches, nectarines, pears, plums, grapes and cherries, is worth about $48 million to orchard owners, but expects losses of $24 million from the cold snap.

To prevent a loss like this in the future, Ontario Tender Fruit chair Phil Tregunno is turning his attention to wind machines, like the ones used on many grape orchards to keep the fruit warm during frosty nights. He notes that the province subsidized the purchase of the machines for the grape industry, but "we're not a favoured industry."

A slate of agricultural programs are available to farmers who don't have crop insurance, like Fletcher. But Tregunno says fruit farmers more than those in other sectors tend not to have insurance. For example, only 74 peach and nectarine growers out of 300 have crop or hail insurance, he says.

As for Feenstra, he's still holding out hope that not all the blossoms are dead.

"A farmer is always hopeful," he said. "If you're not optimistic, you shouldn't be a farmer."