Warmer winters could impact local fruit crops


You may have noticed winter’s getting shorter and shorter, resulting in earlier arrivals of spring.

For example, last month was the ninth warmest January on record and set multiple high temperature records.

Fruit trees that historically have done well in a region are seeing decreasing yeilds as favorable locations shift.

Growing fruit is truly a four season job and with the changing seasons, so does the type of fruit that thrives in western Massachusetts.

The warming climate is an increasing problem for agriculture. Even in a good year – one without torrential rains or harsh droughts or extreme temperature swings – the rising temperatures are making it harder to grow fruit.

Apex Orchards, perched on a hill in Shelburne, has constantly been adapting to stay ahead of the changes.

“Grew up on this farm, family has been on the farm since 1828. This is what I knew growing up. It’s just changed tremendously since I was a kid. We’d always expect a killing frost early to mid-September and now, it’s a month later at least,” said Tim Smith, owner of Apex Orchards.

While apples have been a main crop since taking over the farm, Smith has slowly been increasing the peach production.

“Peaches are a main crop for us now. Before, we were having cold enough winters that we would lose the flower buds. On peaches, if the temperature goes below -10°F, then we lose the crop. We haven’t been below -10°F for a number of years now,” Smith explained.

The decrease in winter cold effectively makes winter shorter. The coldest temperatures each winter are slowly getting warmer. For Springfield, a nearly five degrees increase in 50 years.

Not only is western Massaschusetts less cold, but it’s less cold, less often. Over the last 50 years, consecutive winter days below normal have decreased.

This lack of cold is why peach crops have thrived.

“We always expected to have two years out of five where we’d lose a crop. Two years out of five, it’d get to -10°F or -15°F below and we’d lose the crop. [Reporter: And now, what sort of ratio are you at?] We’ve had one crop loss in the last 15 years, so it’s quite a change. People don’t realize that, realize that apple and peach trees need a certain amount of chilling hours. That’s when temperatures are between 32 and 45 degrees,” Smith noted.

Temperatures colder than 32°F provide little additional rest, while temepratures above 60°F – like we had in January – reverses any chilling that happened in the previous day or two.

Jon Clements, an extension educator at UMass Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown, explained, “it takes them awhile to get to that point of rest and it also prevents them from starting to grow when we have sudden temperature extremes in the winter, like when it gets to be 70 degrees for a couple of days.”

Apples need between 800 to 1,100 chilling hours for spring growth. Peaches only need between 400 to 800. You can see why the decrease in cold is more conducive to peach growth.

“If it does get warm in the winter, it can wake them up a bit. It can reduce their hardiness. What we really don’t like to see if very warm temperatures followed by very cold temperatures, ‘cuz that can cause some damage,” Clements noted.

Smith is optimistic his orchard will continue well into the future.

“I’m sure, at some point, we’ll have to change and drop some varieties, that are made for colder weather, that we probably cannot grow as well anymore because of the warming of the climate,” Smith said.

Apex Orchards told us the last time they lost an apple crop due to freeze-out was 1941.