Western Pennsylvania Fruit Growers Lament Losses

5/26/2012 10:00 AM
By Patti Orton Northwest Pa. Correspondent

NORTH EAST, Pa. — “It’s bad. It’s a tough year to be a fruit grower,” said Andy Muza, Penn State Cooperative Extension educator.

Fifteen frost events this spring in western Pennsylvania eradicated blossoms and buds from apples, cherries, peaches, pears and grapes. In some cases, the damage is total; in others, it is variety specific; while in still others, the damage is location-based.

“I’ve never had a year like this,” said Paul Pangratz, who operates a roadside fruit market in Girard, Pa. His family has been in the business since 1943. “Cherries are all gone, apricots are gone, prunes, plums — all gone,” he said.

Burch Farms, a well-established retail and wholesale fruit farm in North East, Pa, is already looking to pull apples from Ontario to fill demand.

Doug Burch estimated that, of his 60 acres of apples, 40 percent have been wiped out.

“Cortlands are the worst,” he said.

Burch emphasized that firm loss numbers are premature until after the June drop, when fruit trees naturally thin themselves.

“We tried to save the crop by burning brush piles to create heat — mostly smoke,” Burch said. “We had 20 contained burnings in all, three times this season, between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.”

Burch’s Concord grape crop suffered an estimated 30 percent loss.

This figure could go higher because “the secondary buds don’t look too good,” he said, shaking his head.

John Johnston of Johnston’s Evergreen Nursery in Erie, Pa., is also dealing with frost damage to ornamental plants.

“In 55 years, I’ve never experienced a year like this with so many frosts,” he said.

Johnston’s business sustained damage to hundreds of hydrangeas, in spite of efforts to shelter them.

“It’s been a constant vigil taking plants in, then out. It’s very stressful on employees,” Johnston said. “My heart goes out to these guys because just one frost can take their crop away. Ours are just not salable right now, but will grow back.”

The trouble is, many of the customers are gone by then, Johnston said.

At a May 17 fruit grower meeting, Muza guesstimated damage crop by crop for the region:

Apples — 35 to 40 percent loss, variety specific.

Cherries — 100 percent loss, sour and sweet.

Peaches — 85 to 100 percent loss.

Pears —100 percent loss.

Grapes — 35 to 40 percent loss.

“Cattaraugus County in New York is fried,” Muza said, “and Erie County in New York is pretty much the same.”

He said grape growers in those counties are hoping for tertiary buds, a nonfruiting leafing bud.

Particularly painful is the fact that growers will likely be compelled to induce a full spray program for the season. Keeping the trees and vines disease-free now, regardless of a short crop, will affect the quality and yields of 2013 crops.

And as if the expense of a spray program with no return is not distressing enough, growers in this region have the added challenge of trying to manage plants at wildly different stages of development.

“It’s difficult to gauge control,” Muza said.

What’s more, insect pressure was unaffected by the frost.

Greg Krawczyk, entomologist and senior research associate at Penn State, was at the meeting and said “insects are not affected too much by weather. The mild winter and frosts had little effect on populations.”

Krawczyk summed it up by saying, “All we know is things are desynchronized with insect development.”

The spirit of the meeting was one of quiet acceptance and neighborly commiseration.

“Every time something bad happens, something good happens to counteract it,” Johnson said. “So right now, we are just looking for that silver lining.”

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