Indiana apple orchards’ fall season ‘worst . . . in decades’ due to last spring’s late freeze

During what’s normally prime apple-picking time, orchards around Indiana are running out of apples early because of a freeze late last spring that obliterated much of the crop.

SHARE Indiana apple orchards’ fall season ‘worst . . . in decades’ due to last spring’s late freeze
Apples hang from at tree at Anderson Orchard in Mooresville, Indiana.

Apples hang from at tree at Anderson Orchard in Mooresville, Indiana.

Casey Smith | AP / Report for America

A sub-freezing snap in late April and early May has resulted in a short season for apple picking at Indiana orchards.

During what normally would be prime Midwest apple-picking time, orchards around Indiana are running out of apples early because frozen temperatures in late spring obliterated much of the state’s crop.

The sub-freezing temperature drops wreaked havoc on the budding, flowering apple trees, causing severe fruit damage and significant crop loss that affected about 70% of the apple crop, according to Peter Hirst, a tree fruit specialist at Purdue University.

“It’s the worst we’ve seen in quite some time, in decades in Indiana,” Hirst said. “This is really rare for us to have damage as severe as what we’ve seen this year.”

In sharp contrast, cold-related damage in Michigan — the country’s third-largest apple-producing state — was likely limited to crops in the southwest, growers say, with Red Delicious and Jonagold apples affected most.

Spring frosts in New York’s Hudson Valley and parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia also are expected to reduce the bloom on several apple varieties this year, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the nation’s 2020 apple crop will be just 3% less than last year and 2% under the five-year average.

While less than 1% of the nation’s apples are grown in Indiana, the niche allows farmers to sell directly to consumers and is a draw for many Chicago area residents.

That’s a “huge advantage” for the state’s apple industry, Hirst said, but it also means orchards “have to get very creative, still offering that family experience, even though they may not have as many apples on the trees.”

At 35-acre Jacobs’ Family Orchard in New Castle, Indiana, more than 90% of the crop was lost, co-owner Stephanie Jacobs said. To make up for the low yields, apples are being outsourced so the orchard can keep making popular apple products like cider and caramel apples.

“Our apple numbers are way lower than normal — we had almost none,” Jacobs said. “We prepare for this kind of thing, but we’re really having to improvise right now.”

In Greenfield, Indiana, Tuttle Orchards saw a similar shortage, with just 5% of the crop salvageable. Apples were picked off the trees by mid-September, and the orchard ended its U-pick apple season more than a month early, shifting the farm’s focus to its pumpkin patch.

In the days after the May 9 freeze, hundreds of apples shriveled up, browned and began falling off trees, said Erin Sterling, co-owner of Anderson Orchard in Mooresville, Indiana, one of the state’s largest at 150 acres.

Sterling at first feared losing nearly all of the apple crop but said the central Indiana orchard’s hilly terrain — with some trees at higher elevation, where they’re less affected by the cold below — might be why a quarter of Anderson’s fruit survived.

“It was prime time when the freeze hit,” she said. “We were in bloom, we had lots of little apples that just weren’t hearty, and they just weren’t ready for those temperatures. I cried and cried. We still lost most of the crop, but we have some, and some is better than none.”

Anderson’s U-pick season usually lasts through mid- to late-October, but fewer apples, combined with big crowds after Labor Day, left many of the trees picked over by mid-September.

“We ran out fast this year,” Sterling said. “We’re just grateful so many people have been coming out.”

Southern Indiana’s Engelbrecht’s Orchard, north of Evansville and largelyy spared by the late freeze, also has seen big waves of visitors despite its owners’ worries that the coronavirus pandemic would keep families away.

“We really are having a pretty good apple season — we’ve been very fortunate this year with actually having crops,” owner Kristi Schulz said, citing nearly normal crop yields and minimal frost rings on some of the fruit. “We somehow dodged a big weather bullet in our little southwestern Indiana area for whatever reason.”

Schulz said people came out earlier to pick their own apples this year, and many of them took home more than in past years.

“Most people will come out and pick up a couple of pounds — maybe 20 tops, which is a lot for most families,” she said. “But this year we just have people picking multiple bushels, like 50 to 60 pounds. The virus hasn’t stopped them from picking fruit — in fact, it might have made them want even more.”

“Spring freezes are a reminder that Mother Nature isn’t always nice, and it seems like every year apple growers in different parts of the country are having to deal with them,” said Jim Bair, president of the U.S. Apple Association.

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