March 29, 2020

Disaster Area > Trees; Orchards succumb to melting ice

ETNA — Monday was “a hard, dreadful day,” said Vincent Conant of Conant Orchards on Route 2 in Etna.

Conant lost his entire stand of 200 dwarf apple trees and Tuesday was still assessing the damage to another 2,000 standard stock apple trees.

The reason for the dramatic loss was not limb breakage, but a result of ice-encased branches being warmed by the sun.

Conant explained that when branches are encased in ice, as if by a glove, the ice acts as a prism when the sun comes out.

“The sun was out, but it wasn’t warm enough to melt the ice,” he said. Instead, the ice acted as a mirror, heating the branch inside the casing and tricking it into thinking spring had come.

“The buildup of heat hurries the buds up and starts to wake them up,” Conant said. “You can actually walk up in the morning and see the water inside, around the bud, under the ice, steaming and moving.”

Dwarf trees are supple and bend and sway in the wind, said the orchard owner. This caused the branches in his entire dwarf orchard to become glazed with ice.

“My standard rootstock is more rugged, and they stand straight and tend to stay put,” he said. “The ice is only on the top of the branches, which allows the heat to escape through the open side of the limb.

“If the sun is going to come out, it needs to be warm and quick,” said Conant. “We need 36 to 40 degrees to get the ice separated from the buds and quickly melted. Right now, there is nothing we can do but sit and wait. This business is bad.”

To the east of Conant’s, at Merrill’s Apple Farm in Ellsworth, manager Brett Johnston said he had snapped off branches where warming was occurring but was most concerned about the possibility of wind. Merrill’s 3,500 semidwarf trees were still encased in ice.

“The tree damage so far hasn’t been too bad, but the trees are still covered in ice,” he said. “If the wind picks up and the branches rattle, the buds will break off. That would be disastrous.”

Johnston said orchard owners may not know the full extent of damage to the apple crop until spring blooming.

To the west, in Skowhegan, Steve Meyerhans at The Apple Farm was keeping a close eye on his 2,500 dwarf apple trees. He was not having the same problem Conant was, but was worried that an impending snowstorm was going to begin breaking his trees.

“The trees are designed to hold a lot of weight, and we haven’t seen a lot of breakage,” said Meyerhans. “But if we get 3 to 4 inches of snow with this new storm, that extra weight may mean significant damage.”

At his Back Road farm, Meyerhans said it hadn’t warmed up enough to melt any of the ice on the trees. He worried that when melting does start, falling ice may damage tender buds.

“So far, so good,” Meyerhans said, “but we’re far from out of the woods yet.”

John Robinson at Chapman Ridge Farm in Athens was watching his peach trees out the window Tuesday as sleet pelted down.

“We have a small orchard of about 35 antique apple varieties and peach trees, but we were fortunate,” said Robinson. “We got more sleet than ice. The damage really depends on what part of the state you are in.”

Penny and Reed Markley of Lakeside Orchards in Manchester said the sun melted off most of the tree ice earlier this week, but the storm has left them with another serious problem.

“Miles and miles of our deer fence is damaged by falling branches from the woods beyond the orchard,” she said. “The deer come in and eat the tender twigs and the buds.” The Markleys harvest 8,000 semidwarf and standard apple trees. “The weight of the ice wasn’t bad. The actual weight of the apples at harvest would be heavier than the ice was. But the damage that the deer can inflict will be substantial.”

John McCue at Highmoor Farms in Monmouth, the University of Maine’s research orchard, said the Highmoor staff has been too busy keeping pipes at the farm from freezing to assess crop damage. The farm has been without electricty for six days, he said Tuesday. McCue said he was seeing far more damage to backyard apple trees than to those professionally trimmed at commercial orchards. “I’ve seen some down here that are split right in half,” said McCue.

Robinson in Ellsworth was keeping an eye on his organically grown raspberry bushes as well. “They are bent right to the ground,” he said. “I would expect 1998 to be a slim year, but they should bounce right back for next year.”

Dr. Jim Schupp of the Maine Pomological Society was supposed to deliver a lecture Tuesday at the Maine Agrictultural Trade Show in Augusta. The lecture was titled “Apple Thinning Strategies Revisited.”

With the trade show bumped to February, Schupp’s talk takes on even greater importance.

“We prune with an eye toward a heavy load,” said Schupp. “I guess we proved that theory.” Schupp said that “assuming we have a January thaw,” most of the state’s apple trees will be in fine shape for spring. He was not so optimistic about 1997 apples still in cold storage.

“These are stored in controlled atmosphere rooms which monitor carbon dioxide and oxygen, and they all run off electricity. There is a lot of concern for this crop, which if it is damaged won’t be salable come next April.”

Schupp estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the state’s 1 1/2 million bushels of annual apple harvest are still in cold storage.

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