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Climate change upsets the apple cart

Anna Bowen

Last fall, a local Ontario organic apple and pear farmer in my area let our community come and harvest apples for free.  A whole bundle of folks trekked out to the orchard, loaded kids in wagons and wheelbarrows,  and chose our implements of choice – ladders, milk crates, long sticks with burlap bags on the end for catching apples, and our eager hands — to harvest the fruit.  The trees were heavy with apples in about ten different varieties and pears in three varieties.   But this fall, we’re not sure whether we’ll be out there again. Harvest Ontario reports that 85% of the Ontario apple crop was lost due to a mild winter, warm spring weather and late killing frosts. Twenty to thirty percent of Ontario’s tender fruit crop (peaches, berries, grapes) was also wiped out.

The extreme change in weather combined with harvest expectations and different routines can apparently take an emotional toll on farmers, which one report suggested can be akin to grieving.   This take was repeated by a farmer interviewed by the Vancouver Sun in the spring who likened the crop devastation to having a death in the family.  Reports from Michigan say that this was the most difficult year in terms of growing fruit in decades.

So what happened?  The early heat wave in March allowed fruiting trees to get several weeks ahead in their development, meaning that trees were blossoming in March instead of May.  Because the trees were no longer dormant, the spring freezes beginning at the end of March caught the trees at their vulnerable stage.  Apple blossoms that become frozen cannot produce fruit.

The damage in Ontario is estimated to represent losses of more than $100 million.

The shortage in Ontario’s apple harvest has been an advantage for Nova Scotia farmers, who are stepping up to fill that void.   Their harvests are actually earlier than other years due to the hot, dry summer.  And for Quebec apple growers who dodged the bad year, the harvest is also several weeks earlier. The high demand for apples means we will be seeing an increase in prices for Canadian fruit.

The question in everyone’s mind is whether this is a once-shot deal, a lighting strike, or whether it’s the beginning of an ongoing – and devastating – trend.  Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation, suggested recently in the Globe and Mail  that an increase in food prices may be just the thing to get people thinking seriously about the effects of climate change on food security.  And as Zoe McKnight’s recent This&That article, “Don’t bet the farm on it,”  from our new September/October print issue suggests, Canada is not taking it seriously enough.



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