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A New Normal for Michigan Orchards

This is the second post of a three-part series. Before reading this, make sure you read the first post of the series here! To quickly recap, in the last article I mentioned how climate change will have unique impacts on tree fruit agriculture due to long-term growing requirements of growing perennials. This means that fruit growers also perceive unique risks from climate change, which is what this post will dive into.

While I was interviewing tree fruit growers in Michigan’s tree fruit belt for my thesis, there was one common theme among all of our discussions: weather is becoming more variable and harder to predict. No longer can growers rely on rules of thumb like “April showers bring May flowers.” Instead, growers in Michigan’s fruit belt are trying to understand what they call a “new normal.” One farmer I interviewed said, “What we would’ve called normal before is no longer normal—everything is becoming the new normal.”

A New Normal

What does this “new normal” look like for fruit growers? Firstly, increasingly variable weather means that weather events previously thought of as “once-in-a-lifetime” are happening more often. In 2012, eighty-degree weather in early March followed by freezing temperatures damaged over 85% of the cherry and apple crops in Michigan. At the time, growers were still reeling from a similar event that occurred in 2002. Nobody expected to have to deal with this situation twice within a ten-year period. Unfortunately, spring frost events like this are projected to become more common as climate changes.

Spring frost is particularly damaging, but it’s not the only component of the “new normal” that growers are worried about. Changing pest and disease profiles also challenge growers as climate changes. Longer, warmer growing seasons allow time for pests to complete more generations than they have in the past. In addition, variable precipitation patterns not only disturb fruit development, they also provide ideal conditions for certain diseases to thrive. When these risks don’t lead to total crop loss, they often leave cosmetic blemishes on fruit that restrict farmers’ ability to sell them at fresh market. Sunburn, fruit crack, and frost rings are just a few of these side-effects. Fruit with these blemishes have to go into processed products such as juice or cider.

Taking Action

There are several measures that fruit growers can take to combat these impacts. Many growers I spoke with had recently added irrigation to their orchards. This helps them get through the longer dry periods, allow fruits to get bigger and prevent fruit crack from rainfall shock. Growers can also install frost fans and wind machines to circulate air in their orchards during cold spring nights in an effort to prevent frost damage. Unfortunately, the adaptations available are not a cure-all solution. In addition, there are many barriers preventing growers from adapting these practices. In the next post I will expand on some of these limitations of available adaptation options. I will also introduce some strategies that may help increase the resilience of Michigan tree fruit agriculture in the face of climate change. Stay tuned to learn more!

Read part 1 of Julia’s Climate change series here.

Julia Linder is the Communications & Events intern for Taste the Local Difference. Contact her at [email protected]

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