Poring over the weather forecasts for the first week of April, Josh Morgenthau saw the potential for disaster.
Following an unseasonably warm winter which resulted in apple orchards and other fruit budding early, Morgenthau, owner of Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, knew that a cold snap expected from last Monday night into Wednesday morning could annihilate this year’s crops.
“You can’t just put the buds back on the trees,” Morgenthau said. “This weather could mean losing our entire revenue stream.”
With unseasonably cold temperatures following an unseasonably warm winter, Dutchess County farmers used everything from controlled fires to helicopters in an attempt to save their crops and their livelihoods.
After this cold snap, Morgenthau estimated a loss of a quarter to a third of fruit crops which budded early. Though Fishkill Farms produces between 500,000 and 1 million pounds of fruit annually, crops including Empire apples, cherries, plums and apricots were seemingly wiped out, Morgenthau said.
And farmers aren’t in the clear yet. As budding fruit mature and become more sensitive to the cold, fatal dips in the temperature could continue through May.
“Everyone’s scared,” said Norman Greig, general manager at Greig Farm in Red Hook.
An early budding
Apple trees and other fruit crops at Fishkill Farms began budding around March 13, about three weeks ahead of schedule, Morgenthau said. This budding is the direct result of the mild winter weather in March.
“With no critical cold, it meant that the trees judged the time of year and entered a new growth stage earlier than usual,” Morgenthau said.
On its own, the early budding wouldn’t be a bad thing. The problem stems from cold snaps and their effect on the buds.
Apple buds cannot survive temperatures below 21 degrees for more than a few minutes in their current state. As the buds mature, they become more sensitive to cold temperatures, Morgenthau said.
“It’s amazing how thin the line is between no damage and complete damage to the bud,” Morgenthau said.
The temperature drop resulted in an “all hands on deck” situation for Fishkill Farms, with farm workers who normally don’t tend the orchards helping to prepare for cold temperatures.
While temperatures did not break record lows, The National Weather Service in Albany reported a low of 25 degrees on April 4, 21 degrees for April 5 and 19 degrees for April 6 in the area.
A fraction of what could be lost
On April 4, workers at Fishkill Farms deployed a combination of kerosene orchard heaters and metal drums filled with firewood, totaling 180 different heaters throughout the orchards to raise temperatures. About 10 farm workers watched Monday night into Tuesday morning to maintain the fires and make sure no accidents occurred.
“Buying yourself a single degree could be the difference between saving or losing thousands of fruit,” Morgenthau said.
While wind conditions made it impossible Monday night, Fishkill Farms rented a helicopter for six hours to assist in raising temperatures Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
The helicopter is meant to act like a ceiling fan for the orchards, pushing warm air down onto the crops and raising the temperature, Morgenthau said.
Wings Air Helicopters, a helicopter rental service in White Plains used by Fishkill Farms, charges up to $1,900 per hour for farm-related rentals, according to Anna Macsai, director of finance and marking for Wings Air Helicopters.
But the costs of these measures pale in comparison to the potential crop yield.
“The cost (of renting the helicopter) would be a small fraction of the value and the profits we would make on these crops,” Morgenthau said. “This isn’t even 1 percent of the value of these crops.”
At Greig Farm, fruit crops are situated on the hills of the 150-acre farm, allowing the cool air to sink into the valleys while the crops remain a few degrees warmer, Greig said.
Morgenthau said the farm will need to prepare for another dip in temperature Saturday night. The weather service predicts a chance of snow showers after 9 p.m. and a low around 22 degrees.
And the later these drops in temperature occur, the greater potential they have to destroy crops.
“These spring frosts usually don’t happen until May, so it’s atypical that we’re having these issues,” Morgenthau said. “Some of the farmers I’ve spoken to said they’ve had crops completely wiped out.”