Something cold comes this way, and experts say Michigan growers better be prepared.
An April 16 freeze affected some Southwest Michigan stone fruit — apricots, plums and peaches — as temperatures dipped to 22 degrees. According to MSU Extension Small Fruit Educator Mark Longstroth, when temperatures drop below 28 degrees, open fruit blooms are damaged or killed.
For West Michigan fruit producers, the potential for a complete loss is a matter of a few degrees — literally. Given the latest freeze warning issued by the Grand Rapids National Weather Service (NWS), many of those farmers will have a restless weekend.
An upper level low will rotate through the Great Lakes region Friday into Saturday, which will be followed by more northwesterly flow all the way into next Tuesday. Daytime highs are predicted to be 10 to 20 degrees below normal during the forecast period, with Friday seeing the potential of some high temperatures holding in the 30s.
“We have a distinct possibility for frost and freezing temperatures most of the next (five) to (six) nights,” NWS reported. “(Thursday) there is the potential for frost with low temperatures in the middle to upper 30s. The main concern is still focused on Friday night into Saturday morning, and we have issued a Freeze Watch for this time frame.”
Temperatures are forecast to drop into the 20s area wide, according to NWS, putting fruit trees at risk in southwestern Michigan from Grand Rapids to the south and west due to advanced bud development. But the NWS Freeze Warning is for all areas roughly south of a line from Pentwater to Alma.
According to NWS, temperatures Friday night into Saturday morning will be about as cold as it gets, noting the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts is predicting “-11 to -13 (degrees Celsius) air to be moving through the Lower Peninsula.”
That conversion could mean temperatures as low as 8.6 to 12.2 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the NWS Storm Prediction Center’s Climatology website that would be the coldest it has ever been with data records going back to the 1940s.
“Bottom line it’s going to feel a bit more like March than May,” NWS advised.
Longstroth says growers will deploy multiple strategies to save their 2020 crop, including equipment designed to keep temperatures even just a few degrees warmer.
“You have people who put in wind machines where you build this big tower and you have a big propeller up top,” Longstroth told Michigan Farm News. “When we have clear, calm conditions, the cold air accumulates close to the ground. If there’s a wind blowing, we can’t do anything; it’ll mix the air up. But if we’ve got what we call a radiation freeze with a clear sky and calm conditions, we get a layer of cold air close to the ground with a warmer layer there above it.
“And when they turn that wind machine on, it mixes those two layers up and they can actually provide 2 to 5 degrees of protection, which is often the difference between no loss and a total loss there.”
The April 16 frost hurt the blooming stone fruit “quite a bit,” said Longstroth, and “it hurt the cherries.”
“For an awful lot of fruit growers, what you do is you choose a really good fruit site that is less likely to freeze out,” he said.
Other commodities affected by the April freeze were apples, peaches, and blueberries, but they were only slightly injured, Longstroth said. Northern cities — Grand Rapids and Traverse City — experienced little effect from the freeze because fruits were not as developed and could still withstand the cold, he said.
“The people who grow apricots and sweet cherries and Japanese plums are actually growing a very small amount,” Longstroth added. “Most of them are sold right off the farm to the local market, and they have really good fruit sites. I’ve been out for the last several weeks looking around, and in many cases, they have a marketable crop … and they’re not losing everything.”
Generally, Longstroth said growers closer to Lake Michigan see less damage while inland damage is more severe.
“It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a total crop failure down here,” he said. “We’re just going to have a reduced crop for some crops and a normal crop in others.”
Like Longstroth, Ryan Fox said growers are starting to run their fans to prevent freeze damage.
“I’ve already heard reports of guys booking people for helicopters because some of the larger operators will have helicopters come in and fly over their orchards at night,” said Fox, crop insurance specialist for Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan. “They’re just getting ready, because right now, we’re in kind of a critical stage for some of these apples.”
Fox said only a few varieties are in the critical growth stage, including peaches and sweet cherries. If freeze damages a substantial portion of a farmer’s crop, then he said crop insurance comes into the picture.
“It is one of those covered perils that crop insurance covers,” Fox said, adding a grower will notify him or another insurance agent of the loss. He will then submit a notice of loss, while an adjuster calls the insured.
“We have to wait until the fruit sets (in mid-June), and then we can go out and adjust it to see how much fruit there is,” he said. “We have to look at their coverage level. It starts at 50% and then it goes up by 5% increments. Then, depending on their coverage level, we see what kind of indemnity they have.”
According to Audrey Sebolt, horticulture specialist for the Lansing-based organization, state fruit growers’ reaction to upcoming freeze events is critical to crop growth.
“For the remainder of the spring, we hope Michigan fruit crops will not face any further freezes,” Sebolt said. “It will also be critical for crops to experience favorable pollinating weather — 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit with little to no wind — to optimize fruit set for flowers that survive this weekend’s cold temperatures.”
According to the NWS, temperatures are expected to return to more normal conditions later next week. Normal highs for this time of year are in the middle 60s.