Climate change affecting local apple growers

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Temperature and precipitation trends mean changes for apples...

BIGLERVILLE, Pa. (WHTM) – The rolling hills of Adams County are ideal for apple growers. The climate is right for growing shiny and juicy apples.

But changes to the climate and weather over the years have local growers worried.

“The weather is a constant worry, a concern. It is something that is on our minds all of the time,” said Bruce Hollabaugh, of Hollabaugh Bros. in Biglerville.

“I think that anybody in our industry, at least here locally in Adams County would agree that there seem to be general trends and changes in what is going on outside.”

Ideal conditions for mature, best color, ripening apples are temperatures in the 40- to 50-degree range. Sudden changes from normal, either too warm or too cold, can be disastrous, especially in the spring and fall.

“Spring seems to come earlier every year, and that’s a big risk for us, although warm temperatures can come here sooner, that we are going to drop temperatures back down again and have a hard freeze, and that can cause a real issue, not just for then, but it can actually throw the crop away for the entire year,” Hollabaugh said.

“You can get too cold, and if you freeze an apple on the tree, you just took its quality and threw it right out the window. The warmer it is at that key maturing and ripening time, generally the less quality and the less storage-ability you see in the fruit.”

Each year presents different challenges. Last year, unfortunately, was the worst-case scenario with record levels of rain.

“Last year was a horrible year for anybody in agriculture,” Hollabaugh said. “Unprecedented levels of rain really decreased the quality of the fruit. There was no storage-ability. Everybody was talking about horrible fruit quality.”

What can be done to help apple growers during weather extremes? Dr. Rob Crassweller has spent his career studying the changes in apples and ways for orchards to adapt.

“From day one you put in an orchard in, you got to worry about climate. It’s going to be changing. Now, in our business, it is the drastic changes, the sudden changes, the extremes,” Crassweller said. “What is happening is that we are getting a lot more cases where we will get two inches of rain in an hour or four inches of rain in a half day, something like that. So, it is the extreme that we are getting. We have to ameliorate that variability. What we need to do then is that we need to be looking at irrigation.”

Crassweller has noticed the lack of temperature consistency in his research at Rock Springs, near State College.

“It is not necessarily that we are getting warmer or cooler or whatever, it is just we are getting too much variation,” he said.

His data proves that while warmer days can lengthen the growing season, quick changes or fluctuations can make or break a harvest.

“What we have seen over the last 20 years is that the curve, now, there are some fluctuations where it goes up and down. There is also the curve has been generally increasing,” Crassweller said.

“We are seeing that our growing degree days are increasing because we are getting warmer temperatures. It goes from 70 degrees to 30 degrees, that type of change. And that can cause problems even in the winter. There was a case where we had a 50-degree drop in temperature in one day, and if the trees are like they are now and you get that drop, you will probably have some damage to the trees. It could kill the trees or definitely kill the flower buds.”

While the variations in the apples being grown continues to evolve over time in Pennsylvania, so too will the technology to allow growers to harvest the sunlight and keep their orchard safe from extreme weather.

“We can adjust technology. No, it is not going to be cheap. It is going to require a different mindset for growers. You are not going to plant a tree and come back and harvest it. We are going to do things more detailed and more precise,” Crassweller said.

This year, mother nature has been kind, and local growers are much happier and more successful than last year. Time to enjoy that homemade Thanksgiving apple pie!

“There shouldn’t be any reason that they aren’t going to see the very highest quality fruit that we grow,” Hollabaugh said. “Generally speaking, this was a pretty kind growing season, even with the extremes we saw late in the season. Folks should have the opportunity to have some really high quality produce.”

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