Cold Snap Threatens N.Y. Apples Tonight After Record Warmth

An unseasonably warm winter and early spring has exposed New York’s iconic McIntosh apples to a potential crop-killing freeze as temperatures across the state are expected to plunge tonight.

Apple and apricot trees, berry bushes and grape vines have emerged from winter dormancy about three weeks ahead of usual, according to Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association in Fishers. That leaves buds on fruit in New York and other northeastern states vulnerable to temperatures that are forecast to drop to as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius) tonight.

New York has produced an average of 30 million bushels of apples (42 pounds per bushel) a year since 2007, and is the largest grower of McIntosh apples in the U.S. The 2011 crop was worth $270 million to growers, Allen said.

“The apple industry is holding their breath,” David Wolfe, a plant and soil scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, said in an e-mail. “They’re expecting some damage tonight. The question is how much.”

The National Weather Service is forecasting overnight lows of 21 in Syracuse, 27 in Rochester and 20 in Ithaca. Potential damage to crops depends on how low temperatures fall and the duration of the cold, Allen said.

‘We’re Very Scared’

“We’re very scared,” Allen said in an interview. “We’re in a very risky situation.”

The conditions in New York follow the fourth-warmest U.S. winter on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Unseasonable warmth extended into spring when there were 400 record high temperatures set around the U.S. on March 14, according to NOAA.

Syracuse reached 80 on March 18, 32 degrees above normal and the highest since record-keeping began in 1950, according to Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for NOAA. Binghamton has had seven consecutive days of record highs ending March 23, the longest such string since 1953.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the crops in New York and other northern states may escape serious damage because their blossoming is not far enough along to allow for maximum exposure to the cold.

“If we can get through this one night with temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s, we should by OK,” he said. “If the same thing happens in two weeks, it will be a big story.”

The recent weather in the Eastern U.S. is similar to the early months of 2007, when a freeze caused $2.2 billion in damage to crops outside citrus-growing states, where most early-year losses occur, he said.

Plants Fooled

“A lot of plants have been fooled by this March warmth,” Rippey said. “Data certainly seems to indicate we’ve entered a pattern in the last few decades of more extreme weather.”

Many New York growers plant trees near lakes that typically freeze during the winter, according to Paul Baker, executive director of the New York State Berry Growers Association. The ice keeps air temperatures cooler into the spring, delaying the time when trees and bushes bud.

This year there wasn’t enough ice on lakes Ontario or Champlain “to make a drink,” Baker said.

“The longer you can delay, the less probability there is of frost,” Baker said in an interview. “I’ve been in agriculture all my life. I don’t remember anything equal to being this extreme.”

Saying Prayers

Growers have few tools to deal with cold snaps like the one expected tonight, Allen said. Some large commercial growers use fans or helicopters to circulate air around trees and crops to keep temperatures from reaching dangerous levels. Many others will simply “say a prayer,” Allen said.

The damage from a freeze won’t be known until about 36 hours afterward, Baker said. At that time, if the core of exposed buds has turned from green to black, the bud won’t blossom, he said.

The value of U.S. apple production in 2010, the most recent year available, was $2.22 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Corn, the most valuable U.S. crop, was worth $66.7 billion that year and $76.5 billion in 2011.

The price of fresh fruits and vegetables, one of the more volatile components of food inflation because of weather vulnerability and smaller crop sizes, fell 2.4 percent last month to the lowest since November 2010, according to the government.

“Right now I’m looking out my office window and it’s bright sunshine,” Baker said from Sanborn, New York, about 10 miles east of Niagara Falls. “We need it to cloud up so that any radiant heat is kind of trapped. A clear night can be very, very cold.”

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