This time of year, Frank Gieringer’s peach trees are usually dripping with fruit.
This year, there’s hardly a drop in the bucket.
“We’re short of fruit. On the tree fruit, I would say we have maybe a 10 percent crop. Like 90 percent loss,” says Gieringer, owner of Gieringers Orchard in Edgerton. “And we have mostly peaches, I’m not sure about apples or other tree fruit, but the peach end of it was hurt pretty hard by the cold winter.”
Just east of Lawrence, David Vertacnik of Vertacnik Orchard believes his apple crop will be down 60 percent compared to last year. His younger peach trees look just about like Gieringer’s — barren.
“The trees are beautiful,” he says, “but they just don’t have any fruit in them.”
This isn’t anything Jennifer Smith hasn’t heard. The past month, the Douglas County Kansas State extension agent’s phone and email have been overwhelmed with stories of missing fruit.
“I didn’t hear anything until maybe three weeks ago,” she says. “And then I started hearing a lot of reports of fruit not setting on. It’s primarily apples, from what I’ve heard and some people said their fruit didn’t set any fruit at all and some have said the amount they’ve set is very minimal.”
Yes, ask around the local fruit growers both commercial and homegrown and you’ll find a stunning lack of fruit, especially tree fruit. That’s because of a bizarre weather pattern that left us with February temperatures several digits below zero. It mostly affected tree fruit like apples, peaches, pears and cherries, though some bush fruits such as raspberries, blueberries and blackberries are also a bit low on fruit this year.
Gieringer says the phenomenon is called “winter kill” — it wasn’t the vegetable farmers’ dreaded late frost that caused it, it was the brutal winter itself. He’s been growing peaches since 2001 and this is the first time he’s seen it. He points to those days in February when area temperatures dropped double digits below zero.
“The rule of thumb on stone fruit is that you’ll lose about 10 percent of your blossom buds for every degree below zero,” he says. “And so, when you get below minus 10 that’s getting up there to virtually a total loss.”
He knew well in advance of spring that his trees were goners, thanks to a peek into the tree’s reproductive system.
“You can bring those buds in within a couple of weeks after the freeze event, cut them open with a razor blade and look at them with a magnifying glass and you’ll see the very inside, you can look at that and see the actual ovary of that flower and you can see that it’s turned black,” Gieringer says.
Smith says she’d expect that because of the blossoming pattern with pears and apples, if the apples aren’t setting, the pears probably aren’t either. She’s also heard of damage to raspberries and blueberries this year. During strawberry season, she heard of an opposite problem to the loads of winter-kill casualties — fruit that had been scorched by early heat.
“It stayed cool and wet for the strawberries, and then we had a really hot day, right when the fruits were ripening,” she says. “So, the plants were in shock from the heat and losing so much water that some of the berries shriveled on the plant and others didn’t ripen or didn’t taste good when they did.”
The only fruit she hasn’t heard horror stories about this year? Blackberries. Her guess is it’s because those fruits tend to bloom later.
“It seems funny to me because we have weather fluctuations every year, but it’s just all a matter of timing of when the plants are flowering or what specific things they’re doing,” she says of this year’s major fail in local fruit.
For now, local fruit farmers — and fruit lovers — will just have to enjoy what they can and then wait for next year. In the world of fruit, an off season tends to signal a big crop the next time around.
Vertacnik, though disappointed in his lack of peaches, is counting his lucky stars that at least a bit of his apple crop was spared.
“It’s always lucky to have apples. Anytime we have fruit, that’s a blessing, for sure,” he says. “We’re working with Mother Nature here and she throws off a lot of curve balls.”