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Ontario apple farmers hope weird winter weather won't damage 2016 crop

Apple farmers depend on cool consistent winter temperatures but El Niño promises anything but.

Farmers depend on cool, consistent winter temperatures but El Niño promises anything but

Ontario apple farmers are crossing their fingers and hoping this year's weird winter weather won't damage the province's $60-million apple crop. 

A super El Niño has climatologists forecasting a delayed winter with rising and falling temperatures, which could affect many fruit and nut-bearing tree crops.

A sudden freeze on May 23, 2015, wiped out half of Ontario's apple crop this year, affecting farmers across the province, including in Eastern Ontario.

The same kind of incident in the spring of 2012 led to the demise more than 80 per cent of that year's crop.

If extreme temperatures over short periods of time reoccur this winter, that could be bad for crops.

Apple trees need consistent cool winters

Apple trees need long periods of cold temperatures to go into full dormancy during winter. They also needs at least a 48-hour transition to safely change from above freezing to extreme freezing temperatures, according to the chair of Ontario Apple Growers, Charles Stevens.

There's not a lot you can do about it, but it's certainly on our minds.- Apple farmer Chris Hall

"If the temperature drops too drastically too fast, that water doesn't have time to drop down to the roots, and then you get freezing of the buds, or the tissue," Stevens said.

"It's just kind of a wait and see [situation]," said apple farmer Chris Hall. "There's not a lot you can do about it, but it's certainly on our minds."

Hall grows mostly McIntosh and Honeycrisp apples on his orchard, Hall's Apple Market, near Brockville, Ont. 

2015 a bad year for apple farmers

Hall was hoping for a better year in 2016 after losing half his 2015 crop to the May frost. But he became concerned about the potential for another hard year after hearing about cherry tree blossoms appearing in Washington, D.C. before Christmas.

"The concern for me would be if we don't get that full dormancy until late January, early February, a sudden cold snap could cause some issues."

He and some of his neighbouring orchard owners are also concerned about a winter featuring many ups and downs in temperatures.

"Trees are pretty hardy, and they can take a cold snap, but you don't want them to wake up and go to sleep and wake up and go to sleep. That's hard on the tree." 

El Niño not historically a problem

Stevens, who has been apple farming over 40 years with Wilmot Orchards near Newcastle, Ont., said winters fuelled by El Niño have not historically been a problem for farmers.

But he does recall a Christmas Eve in 1981 where temperatures rose to 10 C only to drop to – 25 C the next day, causing buds to freeze, killing trees and wiping out a large portion of the crop for the following season.

"I don't believe, with El Niño, we'll see those extreme cold temperatures this year," Stevens said. 

Many apple farmers across the province applied for crop insurance — funded by farmers, as well as the provincial and federal governments — to stay afloat through 2015.

The cost of claims for 2015 had not yet been determined in time for the Ontario Apple Growers annual report, but that same report stated the total amount claimed in 2012 — when frost took out more than 80 per cent of the crop — reached more than $25 million.

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