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Apple growers fret as mercury swings

Associated Press / April 19, 2010

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Frank Whittemore has been growing fruit for a lifetime and can’t ever remember a year when the buds started peeking out on his 30,000 apples trees so early in the spring. And that’s what has him worried.

“We’re just praying that we don’t get some really, really cold weather over the next few weeks,’’ said Whittemore, 85, co-owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, N.H. “It would be a disaster for us.’’

While most residents of the Northeast were enjoying the recent spate of warm weather, apple growers fretted about an unprecedented early bloom that could leave the nascent fruit vulnerable to a dangerous cold snap.

Trees are blossoming two to three weeks ahead of schedule because of a balmy early spring, an early snow melt, and heavy rains in March, according to orchard managers and fruit experts. That leaves plenty of time for the region’s notoriously unpredictable weather to strike back with a killer freeze.

“There will be a couple of weeks where the growers, I think, will be pretty nervous,’’ said Russell Powell, executive director of the New England Apple Growers Association. The danger with the accelerated growing pattern, he explained, is that once the tiny buds push out, they can easily be killed off by a hard and sudden frost.

And it’s not just apples at risk. Peaches and plums that generally blossom slightly ahead of apples are also off to a much faster start this season.

A hard frost is not uncommon in New England in the last two weeks of April and not unheard of in early May.

Analysts say a drop in temperature to 28 degrees could damage 10 percent of the crop and a drop of a few more degrees could damage up to 90 percent of the crop. The stakes are high: The six New England states combined to produce 182 million pounds of apples commercially in 2008.

While that is only a fraction of the nearly 9.8 billion pounds produced nationwide, here much of it is sold directly to consumers, the lifeblood for many family farms.

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