Connecticut farmers, and farmers everywhere, have always been at the mercy of Mother Nature. This year apple growers in Connecticut are hurting more than ever. According to the Hartford Courant, crops are down to about 16 percent this year due to an April freeze that damaged early budding apple blossoms. Changes in weather patterns have been a large concern among many this year, especially those who are at the whims of it.
One of the farms to be hit the hardest was Blue Jay Orchards in Bethel. The Mercurial spoke with owner Chris Seifrit to see exactly how hard.
“Basically, what occurred was that we had a fairly mild winter to begin with; never really had any cold spells,” said Seifrit. “When it warmed up in March, the temperatures were averaging 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal at times.”
A quick and simple lesson in botany: in the winter many plants hibernate until the warm weather hits. Their genes trigger a call to action when the temperature reaches a certain degree of warmth, much like a bear.
“Around April 15, they blossomed out for two to three weeks,” Seifrit explained. ” There was a freeze that happened on April 23.” Seifrit informed me that blossoms will keep until about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and that any temperature below that will cause the blossoms to freeze up, along with their pollen, meaning no apples.
“75 to 80 percent of our apples were lost,” said Seifrit. “Some may have already been pollenated [at the time of the freeze], so we did have a small amount, but nothing we could offer for pick your own business.”
So, what do Connecticut farmers do when they lose a crop? Many farmers have affiliate local farmers that they deal with on a regular basis, so if another farm has a surplus, they will buy from them. Some farmers prefer to just bypass freezing conditions and fight Mother Nature back.
“Some orchards will use protection like heat machines if it isn’t below freezing to pump warm air into the orchard,” said Seifrit.
In the winter many plants hibernate until the warm weather hits. Their genes trigger a call to action when the temperature reaches a certain degree of warmth, much like a bear.
I could imagine this process would be expensive – to cover so large an area without ability to insulate the heat in the open air. However, Seifrit said,“[heat machines] can be expensive, obviously not as expensive as losing 80% of your apples, but you have to weigh the cost to the risk.”
Also, it’s not as though crop-decimating freezes happen all the time. Blue Jay Orchards does live on a flat piece of land that attracts the still, cool air that frost likes to gather on, but this is only the second time in 30 years where such an apple loss has been sustained.
“So the reward can outweigh the risk sometimes,” laughed Seifrit.
Other farms, such as Maple Bank in Roxbury, had a much different outcome this season.
“We had a great summer, almost everything went well,” said Howard Bronson, co-owner, in an interview. “Our apples were a little light, but most of that was the result of having a very big crop last year.”
Howard and his wife, co-owner Cathleen Bronson, grow all sorts of vegetables and fruits at Maple Bank, from the staples like lettuce, broccoli, and tomatoes to the most relevant of squashes this month: the pumpkin.
“We were picking apples close to 20 days earlier than usual, we had all our Macintosh picked in August,” Howard said, remarking that they typically do not start picking until early to mid-September.
I asked Howard if he had heard about Blue Jay Orchards crop loss, and his voice grew grave. “Yes, I heard about them, they got hit hard,” he said. “They’re on kind of like a flat plain there, ours is on more of a hill, and the cold air runs off.”
However, Maple Bank isn’t invincible either. “We had real bad hail back in 2002 and lost our whole [apple] crop,” said Howard. “And you only have one chance.”
So, you have about 2-3 weeks afterwards for pollination, if frost hits during these times it can spell a dry season for apples.
Howard explained that you only lose apples during bloom. “You know, a week before bloom you can get all the frost you want and it doesn’t hurt.” After emerging, the blossoms have about two to three weeks for pollination, and if frost hits during these times, it can spell a dry season for apples. “We were lucky,” Howard recalled, “we had four days in a row where it was 32 degrees here, it was frosting but it was just 32 degrees, and it’s not until about 28 degrees where you really start losing apples.”
Maple Bank Farm doesn’t offer pick your own apples, but they do offer pick your own berries and their large market is open six days a week most months. Howard also mentioned that his pumpkin patch is looking very nice this year, and I asked if he would have a pick your own for them.
“I think I’m gonna work on that for next year,” he said. “People want to go out and pick their own!”
For now, many Connecticut farms are doing well and can roll with the punches, but the increasing degrees of fluctuation in local weather patterns have many wondering what lasting effects will tax the balance of our delicate ecosystem.
Blue Jay Orchards, located at 125 Plumtrees Road in Bethel, has plenty of apples for sale in their market, along with cider, doughtnuts, and other baked goods. The Blue Jay pumpkin patch is also open for business, and orchard hay rides are available for $2.00 a person. The market is open 9am to 6pm through October. For more information, vist Blue Jay online at bluejayorchardsct.com.