Mid-May frost threatens New York's apple crop: Some farms spared, others devastated

A frost-damaged apple bud at Schutt's Apple Mill in Penfield has brown seeds, which means it's dying.
A frost-damaged apple bud at Schutt's Apple Mill in Penfield has brown seeds, which means it's dying.

It's been eight years since Evan Schutt became the fourth generation to take the reins of his family's farm in Penfield, but sometimes it feels more like 100, he said, only half jokingly.

In his first year, Schutt's Apple Mill lost a large percentage of its apple crop to frost. The next year brought a difficult drought. (After that, he installed irrigation. “I‘m never doing this again," he said.)

This year, Mother Nature dealt him another blow.

Below-freezing temperatures in the wee hours of May 18 persisted in his apple orchard for 4 to 5 hours. "Our farm is flat, so the air just settles," he said. He estimates that he will lose 70% of his crop to frost damage, and that he'll harvest virtually no Crispin or Autumn Crisp apples. "I don’t know if I’ll be open for u-pick this year," he said.

To make matters worse, the farm has planted more than 25,000 new apple trees on 28 of its 30 acres since 2017. This year would have been the first full crop for many of those trees. "I had the best bloom I ever had," he said. The trees had set fruit, meaning that many baby apples could be found.

More: 'Worst we've ever seen.' Frost threatens Finger Lakes wines, grape harvest

He takes comfort in being able to rely on his thriving retail business, and will sell apples from other growers if needed. “We’re going to be OK because our business model is good," he said.

An erratic pattern for apple growers in New York

While many New York apple growers experienced devastating losses, the consequence of last week's frost is geographically erratic, said Craig Kahlke, area extension specialist for the Lake Ontario Fruit Program, a program from the Cornell Cooperative Extension. He works in New York state's main fruit belt, from Niagara County to Oswego, but stays in touch with people throughout the state.

Severe damage can be found in some apple orchards but not in others, he said. "It’s not necessarily where you would think it would be," he said. Some farms near Lake Ontario, which are usually not as vulnerable to frost, experienced damage, while some away from the lake had no damage. He said the situation in the Hudson Valley and the Champlain region experienced a similar pattern.

Bill Wickham of Wickham Farms in Penfield, lights Duraflame logs at 3 a.m., and places them between the rows in his apple orchard, trying to keep the buds from freezing overnight as temperatures dipped near 30 degrees. Wickham has five acres and 5,000 trees.  He used nearly 200 logs.
Bill Wickham of Wickham Farms in Penfield, lights Duraflame logs at 3 a.m., and places them between the rows in his apple orchard, trying to keep the buds from freezing overnight as temperatures dipped near 30 degrees. Wickham has five acres and 5,000 trees. He used nearly 200 logs.

An example can be found within the town of Penfield. Wickham Farms, which has a 5-acre u-pick apple orchard just three miles south of Schutt's, experienced virtually no frost damage.

"We seem to have come through pretty well unscathed," said owner Bill Wickham. In May of 2020, he resorted to lighting 200 Duraflame logs to try to prevent frost damage, but this time the temperatures didn't get low enough to warrant such measures.

His orchard is located on the highest spot of his land because cold air tends to settle in low spots, but he isn't sure whether that was what helped. "I don't know, whether we're straight up lucky or on a hill," he said.

Kendra Burnap, who owns Burnap's Farm Market in Sodus, Wayne County, one mile south of the lake, was another one of the fortunate growers who didn't experience damage. "My best ally is the lake," she said.

Whether the frost will make a major dent in the state's overall apple crop is way to soon to tell, said Kahlke of the cooperative extension. His gut tells him that while there will be some farmers with devastating losses, the apple harvest may come through OK.

Longtime Wayne county apple growers weigh in

David DeFisher, the fourth generation to run the 500-acre DeFisher Fruit Farms in Williamson, has touched base with other growers and his prediction is more pessimistic. "I think the problem is going to be a statewide issue," he said. "Apple production is going to be down dramatically.”

DeFisher grows 250 acres of apples, mostly for sauce and slices, but has also become well known for its line of Rootstock Ciders and Spirits.

Cider apples are unique because the trees tend to be older, DeFisher said. They also tend to be biannual, producing a heavy crop one year and a lighter crop the next; this year was shaping up to be a heavy year. But because cider apples tend to bloom for a longer length of time, he wonders whether there may be hope for them. "It will be interesting to see where they turn out," he said.

Before the frost, the apple trees had set fruit. Evan Schutt holds an example of bright green healthy apple bud.
Before the frost, the apple trees had set fruit. Evan Schutt holds an example of bright green healthy apple bud.

Gary Wells was gearing up for the 50th anniversary of The Apple Shed, his family's farm stand in Newark, but frost damage has put a damper on the celebration.

He and his family grows 100 acres of apples, which are sold to Mott's and packing houses as well as at the farm market. They are also made into fresh apple cider sold at several farms and farm markets.

Having farmed in Wayne County since 1970, he's seen frosts and freezes over the years, the worst in 2012. Some of his trees on hilltops are completely fine and some at the bottom of hills are "completely gone."

He guesses he's lost 60 to 70 percent of his crop. "I think we’ll have enough apples to cover what we’ll need for ourselves," he said.

But this is the first year that the region has seen frost when the fruit is set, and he's trying to decide how to salvage trees that still have partial crops. "We’re all up in the air," he said. "We don’t know what to do.”

Both DeFisher and Wells have crop insurance, which will help their operations survive until the next harvest, but it will pay out a fraction of what a good harvest would provide. "You have one year’s loss like that – it takes several years to come out of that," DeFisher said.

"We’re going to make it work, one way or another," Wells said. "2024 will be exciting and good ― a great year."

Email reporter Tracy Schuhmacher at TracyS@Gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: New York apple crop threatened by May 2023 frost