Spring in Western North Carolina is notorious for unpredictable weather. On a single Saturday earlier this month, residents in Asheville seemingly experienced all four seasons in 24 hours, with moments of snow and hail alternating with gusts of wind and clear, sunny skies.
While fluctuations in weather amount to mere annoyance or snarky social media posts for most residents, the turbulence can have a major impact on local farmers, particularly apple growers.
Trey Enloe, a fifth generation apple farmer at Bright Branch Farms in Hendersonville, recalls Easter weekend last year, when WNC saw below-freezing temperatures for several nights in a row. The frost destroyed most of his apple blossoms — decimating the crop for the season.
“I think it got down to 22 degrees. There’s really not much you can do at that point,” Enloe says. “There’s certain things horticulturally you can do to save a degree or to buy yourself a little bit of leeway, but usually by about 29 degrees, you lose about 10% of your crop. By 25 degrees, you’re supposed to lose about 90% of your crop.”
The late freeze caused millions of dollars in damage throughout the region, as well as price hikes and supply chain issues for many local farmers and distributors. How worried should they be about WNC’s tumultuous weather?
Last year’s frost, along with this spring’s turbulence, may lead some to ask if cold snaps are becoming more frequent in Western North Carolina. According Kenneth Kunkel, a researcher with N.C. State University’s Asheville-based N.C. Institute for Climate Studies and lead author of the N.C. Climate Science Report, the science is still out.
“There is some evidence that this type of weather pattern has become a little more frequent, but the scientists who work directly on that topic kind of disagree among themselves about whether we can expect that to be the case in the future,” he explains. Although North Carolina’s climate has warmed at an accelerating pace over the past few decades, he continues, conditions that can cause late freezes are not definitively tied to climate change.
Kunkel says that the most likely effect of a warming climate will be hotter temperatures in spring and fewer chances for late freezes. Those warmer temperatures could eventually produce a different set of weather-related issues, such as increasingly hot summers or extended periods of drought, that could make apple growing more difficult.
Climate change has already shifted agriculture in some areas of Europe and in the western U.S., Kunkel points out. Some grape growers, for example, have been forced to use different varieties of grapes that are better suited to warmer temperatures and longer periods of drought. He says the same may one day hold true for apple varieties in WNC.
“If we continue to warm, at some point, some crops become less suited for the local climate. I don’t think this would be the case in the mountains anytime soon. But generally, fruit trees require a certain amount of cold in the winter,” Kunkel says. “We might get to the point that some of the varieties that are grown around here are no longer optimal.”
Such changes would alter an apple-farming tradition that has existed in Western North Carolina for well over 100 years, says Terry Kelley, director of Henderson County’s Cooperative Extension. North Carolina ranks eighth among the country’s apple-producing states, with Henderson County growing roughly 85% of the state’s apples. Kelley attributes that concentration of apple farmers to WNC’s ideal growing conditions.
“We’re south enough that we get warm temperatures in the daytime, but our elevation is such that we get cold temperatures at night, and that helps the fruit to build up sugars,” he explains. “We also get a lot of sunlight, which enhances the coloring of the fruit to give them their red and yellow appearances.”
Enloe says that apple farmers face the potential of losing some crops to frost damage every spring but that in most years, the loss is negligible. An apple tree produces a lot of blossoms, he says, and it only takes 15%-20% of those blossoms to make a full harvest’s worth of apples. Kelley adds that it is not uncommon for farmers to lose up to 30% of blossoms in a single year due to changes in the weather.
Nevertheless, he continues, “Last year was very devastating.” Kelley says apples in North Carolina are valued at about $30 million annually and that the losses due to frost in spring 2021 reached roughly $20 million.
As far as mitigation goes, Kelley says farmers have few options for protecting apple trees against harsh weather conditions. Wind machines, which mix cooler and warmer air and prevent cooler air from settling, are one solution, but their expense puts them out of reach for most farmers.
“We can’t control when the trees are blooming, and so we want to make sure that we do everything we can to protect them. But it’s a matter of economics as well,” he explains.
Apple losses not only impact farmers, but also those who buy and harvest the fruit. Josie Mielke, who co-owns Urban Orchard Cider Co. in Asheville, says she’s been buying apple juice made from locally grown apples since opening the cidery nearly nine years ago. The Asheville native says that promoting local farmers is a crucial piece of her business’s philosophy.
“When we conceptualized the cidery, one of the main driving factors was that Hendersonville produces 85% of the state’s apples,” Mielke explains. “We were really into the local food movement, farm to table, etc. And so that just became part of our mission — to support the farmers as local as possible.”
While prices for locally produced apple juice have remained steady over the last few years, Mielke says, the 2021 spring freeze caused the cost to jump 25%-30%. It was the first time her business experienced such a dramatic shift in price and availability.
“It was hefty, very hefty,” she says of the increase. “And as a company that already is making a premium product — and on the backside of the pandemic, where the supply chain is already a disaster and inflation is high — it’s been another tough addition to have to pass down the cost to consumers.”
Despite the costs, Mielke says she prefers to continue supporting local farms as much as possible, although she admits that she would seek products outside of WNC if the area was consistently impacted by crop-killing weather.
“We’ve had partnerships with these farmers for close to a decade now. That being said, we can’t have a season where we can’t make cider. So if we had to, we would look outside of Hendersonville and go as regional as we possibly could,” she says. “For now, we’re going to do our best to keep our buying power in this area.”
Fewer apples to harvest also leads to issues within the labor market, says Enloe. People who typically travel to WNC to pick apples during harvest seasons found themselves without a job last spring, leading them to seek more consistent locations for work.
“The guys that used to come into town from places like Florida or other states to help pick apples knew that they weren’t there last year,” he explains. “So there was less labor to help with apples that were here. Labor is always a tough issue, but it’s especially tough in a year like last year.”
The long view
Nearly one year after the devastating freeze, help is finally on the way for local farmers. In March, state Rep. Tim Moffitt and state Sen. Chuck Edwards worked with N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler to provide $12 million in relief for apple farmers impacted by freeze damage in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties.
The Agricultural Crop Loss Program was originally meant for farmers impacted by Tropical Storm Fred but now also includes relief for those who lost apples, berries and grapes last spring. Farmers had until April 15 to apply.
“Spring freeze events have always presented risk to farmers and will continue to do so. … The 2021 season was particularly damaging, with back-to-back freeze events occurring later in the season while fruit crops were in full bloom,” Troxler tells Xpress. “We have some of the best farmers in the world, and they are the lifeblood of our state’s economy.”
“We’re very appreciative for it,” says Enloe, who applied for the funding. “I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to turn out to be, but any kind of help is always good.”
And despite the topsy-turvy weather thus far this spring, Enloe says the chance of an abundant apple harvest is looking fairly good — though he’s still holding his breath until summer officially arrives in June.
Regardless of the changing climate and predictions of more severe weather, Enloe believes apple farming will exist in Western North Carolina for another 100 years. The most critical challenge to the apple industry in North Carolina, he says, may be urbanization rather than weather.
“I think that’s really probably the No. 1 threat to agriculture: housing. If somebody sells their orchard, it’s never going to be anything else,” he says. “I would probably consider that more of a threat than any kind of climate issue, at least in the near future.”
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