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Fruit farmers optimistic about season

By Melissa Frick/The Holland Sentinel • Jun 7, 2018 at 1:00 PM

Despite the extended cold temperatures earlier this spring, West Michigan fruit farmers are looking forward to a good season.

While farmers are expecting delays of a week or two on their crops in the upcoming season, all are optimistic about their yields after experiencing very few frosty mornings this spring.

Strawberry crops are about two weeks behind schedule this year. At Beaverdam Berries in Zeeland, owner Ryan Fraaza said that, around this time last year, they were beginning to pick their strawberries.

With the recent heat, Fraaza said the only thing they’re worried about for their strawberries is “sun scald,” which can result in a sour taste in the berries. He said they’re working to prevent that with plenty of hydration, early watering of crops before sunrise and watering throughout the day.

Mitch Visser, of Crisp Country Acres in Ottawa County, said that although their strawberries will be delayed by two weeks, it was a good spring for the fruit.

“Despite the crazy spring, everyone around here is happy with the way things are looking,” he said.

Local blueberries are expected to be ready around July 10. Despite the one-week delay, farmers are reporting an above-average season.

Tom Parker, of Bowerman Blueberries, said they’re looking at one of their largest blueberry crop yields in years. Recent rains have not had a negative effect at their farm because they have sandy soils, which drain quicker, he said.

Michigan Farm Bureau horticultural specialist Kevin Robson said an excessive spring rain occurrence can pave the way for blight.

“Twig blight, bacterial canker, all these fungi are more prevalent when it’s wet,” he said. “Certain fungi will attack the stem of the tree or bush, which changes the color of the stem to brown, and results in fruit not finishing its development.”

Robson said farmers can combat blight with fungicide sprays. But with excessive rain, orchards can see trouble when the sprays get washed away.

Rob Crane, of Crane Orchards in Fennville, said his apple orchards struggled with this problem firsthand. Blight, which doesn’t colonize in temperatures below 60, will double its growth when the thermometer tops 80.

“We had to spray everything because of the heat,” Crane said. “I was under a rain cloud three days in a row, and we had to spray everything multiple times.”

Blight isn’t just a seasonal problem, Crane said, and it can have the potential to wipe out an entire farm.

While Crane Orchards is anticipating a great yield this year, the sudden hot weather last week also threw them off. A rapid spike in warmer temperatures can create an accelerated time frame for farmers because their tree-trimming window becomes compressed. When temperatures get really hot really fast, growers have less time to trim branches, which is a process that ensures optimum fruit load on trees.

“In farming, you think you know how things are supposed to go, then the next year it changes,” Crane said.

Last year, farmers were thrown off with a sudden spring frost. While there are measures that farmers can take to save crops from frost, such as installing front fans to aid in warm air circulation, it can be detrimental to the fruit.

This year brought few frost-ridden mornings. Visser said there was only one morning in April when farmers had a problem with frost.

But the extended cold weather this spring still brought some chilly mornings. Robson said colder mornings mean poor pollination weather because bees aren’t as active in the orchards. But in recent weeks, with the spike in warmer temperatures, bees have been out and about in the orchards.

As for the upcoming month, farmers aren’t anticipating any weather patterns that will throw them off guard. As long as there are no big storms or frost occurrences, they’re expecting the return to a regular growing season.

“But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about farming, it’s that you can’t predict the weather,” Robson said.

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