As spring chill sets, apple growers may see repeat of last year’s dismal harvest

OSWEGO, N.Y. — The farmer cut open an apple bud and observed it with disappointment. The bud looked dark brown inside—this was a sign that the frost from the previous week may have damaged the plant. The bud reminded him of the massive crop loss apple orchards like his faced last year, and may see again this next harvest.

“Last year we basically lost the whole crop,” Wade Smith, owner of Fruit Valley Orchard, said. “Other than we could use even some of the damaged ones for juice, unless they were too small.”

Crushed apples sold for juice are less valuable than a whole apple sold on the fresh market. The juice sales barely covered the cost of labor, according to Smith, for the orchard’s three Jamaican migrant workers. The frost’s financial hit on apple orchards like Fruit Valley shows the impact of climate change on agriculture in upstate New York.

A branch of a Zestar apple grows pink buds at Fruit Valley Orchard. Photo by: Evan Youngs

Climate change has shifted seasonal weather patterns, pushing warmer weather further into autumn and colder weather further into spring. Frosts have occurred later into spring, damaging apple crops when trees bud in weather too cold for the plants to survive.

“Of course [the trees] are going to be stressed,” Craig Kahlke, a fruit specialist from Cornell Cooperative Extension, said. “Look at the type of weather we’ve had over the last 10 years: too wet, too cold, too hot, too dry. We don’t have quote-unquote ‘normal’ weather patterns for any period of time.”

When frost damages an apple plant, the fruit forms a russet, patches of yellow skin that buyers often find undesirable. Russeting often forms in the shape of a ring around the apple, known as a frost ring. Apples could also grow too small or fail to properly develop seeds.

While a grower cannot be certain until they harvest the ripe apples in autumn, they can test for signs of frost damage by cutting open buds and checking their color inside. A green bud signifies a safe plant; a brown bud signifies a plant at risk; a black bud signifies a plant with high likelihood of damage.

Failing to prevent climate change threatens the apple industry and the greater upstate economy, Kahlke said.

“Growers keep records and they know the climate is changing,” Kahlke said. “Whether anybody believes it’s just a little anomaly, or if this is the new deal because of the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses we’re pumping into the atmosphere — that’s not my concern. My concern is: growers know that the climate is changing. We have more extreme weather. What can they do to mitigate it? What can they do to adapt to climate change?”

For farms affected by the frost, crop insurance and federal assistance can be a lifeline for their business. The Department of Agriculture designated upstate New York a federal agriculture disaster area and provided low-interest loans to farmers in 31 counties.

“These kinds of things are a part of farming,” Steve Ammerman, communications director for the New York State Farm Bureau, said. “They’re at the mercy of Mother Nature … so these are the things farms do to try to plan accordingly, but at the same time, when we have a large-scale crop loss, it can be very very hard to absorb.”

A frost in April covered apple buds, risking damage to their future fruit. Photo courtesy of: Wade Smith

Smith said that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the upcoming harvest. 

Some orchards grow a wider variety of crops that could offset the loss from the apples and “spread the risk around,” as Ammerman put it. Fruit Valley’s greenhouse operation, where they grow vegetables and flowers, helped save them after last year’s apple crop loss. 

The orchard also grows cherries, and while last year they at first seemed to fare well, a rainstorm overhydrated the cherries and split them open.

Growers can also invest in heat fans and horticultural fabric, a large white woven sheet a grower lays on their crops to protect them from frost and reflect sunlight onto the trees lower canopy.

New York state was the second largest producer of apples in the U.S. in 2022, growing 1.35 billion pounds of apples for the market, according to the USDA

Apple grower Wade Smith demonstrates a healthy bud, left, versus a frost-damaged bud. Photos by: Evan Youngs

“It’s essential that we have a strong apple production in this state,” Ammerman said. “Not only does it provide local food but it supports our local economy, supports our local businesses, and they are vital to their communities.”

But experts like Kahlke agree that for growers like Smith, the recurrence of late frosts due to climate change is “the new normal.”

“Mother Nature,” Kahlke chuckles, “she’s ruling the roost, so to speak.”