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Rare Freeze Ices Michigan Orchards

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, May 22, 2020

As winter gave way to spring, the buds occupying what appeared to be every branch of every tree at the Leitz Farms apple orchard were a hopeful portent of things to come.

"It was really something," said Fred Leitz, who is a fourth-generation owner, along with brothers David, Jim and Everett, of an expansive produce operation in Sodus, Mich. "Every branch had buds from the very top all the way to the bottom, which is unusual because there are usually skips—branches that don't have any buds."

It was still early, but all indica-tions pointed to a "bumper" crop of apples that, along with blueberries, tomatoes and cucumbers, would be destined for distribution throughout the Midwest and as far away as New York, Leitz added.

Then, an un-seasonable, bone-chilling polar air mass gashed the Great Lakes region during Mother's Day weekend. Every-thing took a 180-degree turn for the worse, leaving Leitz and fellow fruit producers with no choice but to laugh off their misfortune.

"I'm getting old enough that I've seen a lot of stuff and if you're going to get really wound up about it, you're gonna have ulcers," he said while giving a tour of his damaged trees last week Wednesday.

It still remains too early for realistic projections, but growers in Michigan's Ber-rien and Van Buren counties are using words like "catastrophic" to describe the potential outcome of yet another once-in-a-lifetime event farmers seem to be enduring on a regular basis.

According to USDA meteor-ologist Brad Rippey, the record freeze "is the region's worst since 1966. We really haven't seen any-thing like this so late in the year in recent decades, which means there's really nothing that you can compare it to over such a widespread area."

That may be true from a statistical standpoint, but Leitz has dealt with similar damage as recently as eight years ago.

"You have to look at the date," he said. "It ain't the worst freeze because the 2012 (cold spell) was bad. It was real warm and then we had blossoms by April 20 or so. But we saved the orchard because we had overhead irrigation in there—frost protection. We had a good crop, but then we had a hail storm at the end of August"

Leitz paused his recollection to let out a hearty belly laugh.

" and the hail took it out. It was like, really?"

This time was notably different, however. During a hard frost, applying water can save budding fruit because it acts as a better thermal con-ductor than air as it freezes around the plant.

"As it's making ice it's making heat, too, and it's not getting any colder," Leitz said. "You want to keep it wet with the ice constantly drip-ping."

Wind machines—huge fans—can also reduce frost damage by pulling air from a warmer inversion layer down to ground level.

While frosts are common in spring, January-style frigid temper-atures flash-freezing everything in sight in May are not, making plants coming out of dormancy especially vulnera-ble.

"There was no inversion layer, so (the wind machines) did nothing," Leitz said. "On Sat-urday there was a freeze, not a frost. There's a big difference. A freeze is the worst because there's no pro-tection."

The temperatures at Leitz's farm went from the low 20s in his apple stands all the way down to a bitter 16 degrees in his 27-acre blueberry field, where a wind machine had no effect. But, because of pre-ceding cooler weather in general, the blueberry bushes weren't as far along as they normally would be this time of year, so Leitz is optimistic about them.

"I think we'll get something out of here the way (that bud) looked," he said. "We need a couple of good, warm days for things to grow because it's hard to tell when things don't grow. The bees are looking for something to do."

Leitz's outlook took a downturn in the apple orchard where the irrigation system coated everything in a glaze of ice that wasn't drip-ping.

As Leitz sliced open apple bud after apple bud with his pocketknife, a vast majority of pistils—the part of the bud where pollination occurs—was black, meaning dead.

"When you cut through there and see a little bit of black, it's never gonna pollinate," Leitz said. "Now, see how nice and green this one is—that's a good apple. When you can walk out here and find a good one, I'm gonna say I'm gonna have apples in this orchard. With this block here, I'm pretty happy."

Things weren't as promising in a 55-acre section of unprotected McIntosh apples, where Leitz had difficulty finding any green pistils.

"I'm gonna say there's nothing here," he said. "I don't have a lot of hope."

Leitz, a past president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, has his finger on the pulse of the ag scene in Michigan and across the nation. He also works as a long-time lobbyist on behalf of various organizations, such as Michigan Farm Bureau, and is an occasional op-ed contributor to The Wall Street Journal and the FOX Business website.

"Sodus-Bainbridge was hit the hardest, but it's going to be variable around the state," he said. "It's pretty bad in Berrien County, but I think there's potential up north for apples. I'm optimistic, but this year, because of everything else going on, you wonder. You second-guess your-self at times but then, you know what, you just make your plan and rock 'n' roll.

"What else you gonna do?"

Slet Trever Meachum, production manager of family-owned High Acres Fruit Farm, a 5,500-acre diverse fruit and vegetable cash crop operation in Hartford in neighboring Van Buren County, also remains undaunted.

"There's no way to know what percentage of the fruit crop is lost because we ha-ven't had any heat or any pollination," said Meachum, who has held numerous state and county leadership roles and is the former chairman of the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development. "A fruit crop doesn't get set until the middle of June at the earliest. Clearly, we've lost buds because they got fro-zen, there's no big secret in that.

"But in a perfect year, I only want 25-30 percent of those buds anyway. I want the other 70 percent to die so we spray to kill them for thinning. Unfortunately, I think we've lost more than that."

Meachum had some success protecting strawberry and grape fields where the farm's grapes are destined to be turned into Welch's jelly. He spent all Friday night and Saturday morning with his brother and sister-in-law in the orchard, where the sprinklers created what looked like an icy scene from the movie "Frozen."

"It was a long night, and it got so cold so fast it was making ice instant-ly," he said. "Don't get me wrong. There was a full, beautiful, slow-rising orange moon coming up. And at 2 in the morning, on your ladder, you had the moon, and the sprinklers were all going, and with the ice, the Lord gave us a pretty spot to look at.

"Unfortunately, you were looking at corpses on your trees that should be flowers. In the Fuji orchards, some of tops of trees got too heavy with the ice and broke right off."

The frantic efforts to save an orchard of Golden Delicious trees may have back-fired.

"Where we put water, we made it worse," Meachum said. "We actually super-cooled them and now we're worried about saving the trees because it got so cold the water couldn't keep up. I would say it could be a catastrophic event. Maybe not as bad as 2012, but we may be looking at an 80-percent apple loss here."

Four days after the freeze, the Golden Delicious trees were covered with brown, dead leaves.

"It looks like we sprayed herbicide on them," Meachum said. "I'm worried I'm going to lose acres of trees, if in fact they do die. I don't think they will, but we are worried they're wounded, which is bad enough. I think they're going to be severely stunted and may not give us a crop next year."

As a last resort, after the ice melted, the Meachums sprayed the trees with a growth regulator called promalin.

"We're going to try to trick the tree into growing seedless apples," he said. "We've seen some anecdotal evidence coming out of New York and Washington state from guys that have tried it and they get some apples. We don't know if it's going to work or not, but it's a cheap material and we had to put fungicide out anyways.

"Maybe it's only 10 percent, but as a grower, you want to grow something."

Such apples would only be used for processing products such as juice, which sup-ports Meachum's something-is-better-than-nothing attitude.

"It was probably worse for my dad," he said of the brutal weekend. "I'm the type of guy that nothing really gets me down. You can kill my dog, steal my wife and break my truck, but I can still walk, so whatever. I've learned a long time ago that if there's something I can't control, just let it go."

Frozen, indeed.

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