March 04, 2011

The Stone Fruit Gamble

Frost in the Trees

“Things don’t look good for my apricots,” said Victor Martino of Bella Viva Orchards on the phone recently. Last week the temperature dropped down into the upper 20s in the Modesto area, where Martino’s orchards are, and he’s waiting to see just how severe the frost damage has been.

In many ways, this is a typical California winter for stone fruit growers — if by typical you mean impossible to predict. Martino won’t know the fate of his crops until the flowers in his 20-acre apricot orchard start to fall off the boughs; if just the petals fall, the fruit will remain intact, but if the whole flower falls off, the crop will be small to non-existent. Many orchardists use sprinklers to mitigate freezes when it gets cold, but Bella Viva uses flood irrigation for their apricots, and Martino says there wasn’t enough water available to him that week to use for that purpose.

This is the time of year when stone fruit trees start to bloom (almonds come first and cherries are the last to bloom but the first to fruit; see the chart below for more details), and all the blossoms are susceptible to freezing weather. Martino says he’s seen frost as late as the last week of April; when it arrives it is an especially cruel contrast to a month that is generally pretty warm otherwise.  

“It’s those first two weeks of April we have to be really careful about,” he says. “It gets beautiful out and you say, ‘let’s go to Disneyland.’ I did that one year and I learned my lesson. Fruit farmers can’t leave town in April.”

Hail can also arrive through mid-May and Martino says there’s no real way to protect the trees when it hits. But it can fall in small patches, so having more than one location, like Bella Viva does, can certainly help save part of the crop. Overall, growing stone fruit is a big gamble. “Even if you lose your crop, you still have to take care of the trees throughout the rest of the growing season,” says Martino. “You’ll drive out to the orchards and say to the trees, ‘you didn’t give me any fruit, and I still have to give you water!’”

Singin’ in the Rain

Rain poses its own set of problems for stone fruit growers. Take Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun, who is waiting to see whether his small orchard of Royal Blenheim apricot trees will be impacted by brown rot this spring. “The buds had just started to push during a really rainy week,” he says. He is also quick to point out that his Blenheims are “older than I am — almost ready to retire,” and older trees tend to be less resistant to disease.

Bill sprays with liquid copper fungicide (one of few options for organic and ecologically oriented fruit tree farmers), but it only protects the leaves it’s covering at the moment — in other words, it doesn’t work on a systemic level like conventional fungicides. So if it rains or if the tree sends out new blossoms, the copper spray has to be re-applied.

Brown rot can ruin crop, and because the affected trees need to be pruned way back, the next year’s round of fruit is often lost. This is the third year in a row that Bill has seen rain fall during the bloom time. “Of course,” he says, “one of the great ironies of growing fruit is that if it doesn’t rain, too much fruit will set and you have to go out to the orchards and thin it out.”

Spring Blossom Calendar

From the Bella Viva Orchard website. See the original

Almonds February 23 - March 9  
almond_wide almond2
Peaches and Nectarines March 1 - 15  
peach_orchard peach
Apricots March 7 - 28  
apricot apricots
Plums and Prunes March 7- 28  
plum prune
Cherries March 28 - April 13  
cherry orchard cherry

 

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CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »