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Grape and apple crops in New York may take a hit due to mild winter

New York State’s grape and apple crops may take a hit due to the mild winter, according to a Cornell professor. Jason Londo, an associate professor of fruit crop physiology and climate adaptation at Cornell University, said there is a real concern for the grape and apple crops, which are loved to be enjoyed in many forms in the summer and fall.

Londo said that he doesn’t expect there has been much damage this year so far, but he has concerns about early bud break leading to a higher risk of frost damage in the region. “This winter has been much more mild overall than normal, and it is having an effect on both apples and grapes across New York State,” Londo said. “In my program, we track winter hardiness, the ability of grapes and apples to avoid freeze damage. For both crops, cold hardiness is weaker than in past years, mostly due to our very mild November and December. We don’t expect that there is much damage this year so far, but as we get closer to spring, I do have concerns that we will see early bud break. In our region, that means a higher risk of frost damage. I’m hoping that we keep the temperatures low, bouncing around the freeze point, in order to keep apple and grape buds dormant.”

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Winter is crucial for both grapevines and apple trees. Londo explained that the trees and vines may appear asleep during winter, but important changes in internal physiology are happening throughout winter. Those changes are necessary for synchronized bud break and flowering in the coming growing season.

As winters in New York get milder, they are also getting more erratic, making it more difficult for growers to deal with this change every year, Londo said. “It is very difficult for growers to mitigate these sorts of large-scale swings in temperature,” he added.

In regards to climate change, Londo said there’s a lot of support for the idea that frost damage will increase, and that’s due to two factors. “When we have a mild winter, apples and grapes have less defense against freezing. They respond to warm temperatures in the middle of winter earlier. The other component is dormancy. When it gets warm, it gets milder, and we spend less time below freezing. That means that the clock adds up faster, and they lose their defenses earlier in the winter.”

If an early bud break happens due to warmer temperatures, the frost risk is high, Londo said. “If we have flowers out and we get a frost and we lose the flowers, there isn’t anything the growers can do to save the crop. They’ll just have a year where they aren’t going to have a lot to sell. There’s very little we can do to mitigate that.”

Londo recommended that growers be more conservative when pruning, to leave more buds so that they avoid damage. Planting more varieties is also key to greater production of crops. “The idea is that when you have a horrible event, you don’t want to lose your entire system. You might take some damage here and there, but you don’t lose the whole thing,” he said.

Apart from growing more varieties, London said growers have other options but it costs more money. “We could use shade cloth to reduce heat, you know, make winter colder by blocking the sun basically. Nobody wants to do that because it’s snowing and we have high winds. There’s no easy way to change them. You can grow your crop with a mind towards they need to have a good solid dormancy to have a good growing season. Healthy plants lead to better winter survival and then diverse systems. Those are the two probably most effective ways to buffer your risk.”