Hard freeze could devastate local crops

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BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. -- Farmers are at risk of having their crops damaged once the cold weather has moved through this week, after already dealing staffing shortages and production delays due to COVID-19.

Plus, they’re still recovering from the polar vortex in early 2019.

“Every year it seems like we go through the same routine where it warms up and everyone is thrilled that it’s 70, 80 degrees in March and we always pay for it later, it’s going to be colder this week and our fruit is in a very vulnerable stage,” said Mike Hildebrand, owner of Hildebrand Farms.

While many rejoiced over those warmer temperatures a few weeks ago, Hildebrand watched his crops bloom early, knowing cold weather would hit again.

Monday, taking stock of what stage his peaches, pears and apples are at as the rain poured and he hoped the cold wouldn't cause too much damage.

The peaches – in full bloom and seeming like they’re in the best shape.

“Some may actually already be pollinated which would be a great thing because you get a little more protection, inside the shuck it’s almost like an insulated blanket around the pistol which becomes the fruit,” said Hildebrand.

While the pears will be next, but won’t have that added protection of being pollinated.

“These are already starting to open, waiting for the bees to get in, but of course bees don’t fly when it’s raining or cold,” he said.

Hildebrand’s most vulnerable crop as temperatures dip – his wide variety of apples.

“All of the pieces inside the blossom are very delicate, so when live tissues freeze, the cells collapse and they die and that’s it, there’s no apple, peach or pear,” he said.

What makes this different than the polar vortex – which destroyed nearly all of the peach crop in 2019 – is that this year’s warm weather got the crops blossoming before those temperatures were really set to stick around.

“Usually Blossomtime is the first week of May and we’re two to three weeks early,” said Hildebrand. “Having snow in April is not abnormal, what’s abnormal is that we’re almost in bloom and it’s the middle of April.”

Hildebrand said demand for his clientele, like local grocery chain Martin’s, is pretty much back to pre-pandemic numbers.

The hope now is enough crop can withstand the weather.

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