After March brought us a miraculous string of 80-degree days, Midwestern fruit farmers were praying for an equally miraculous April — one warm enough to protect all the vulnerable fruit blossoms coaxed into early bloom.
But a punishing frost in the last days of April dashed those hopes along with most of the Midwest tree fruit harvest, experts and farmers say.
"Our tree fruit and stone fruit took a bad hit with about a 70 percent crop loss and 100 percent on some of our peach trees," said Mick Klug, whose orchards in southwest Michigan supply several restaurants and farmers markets in the Chicago area. "It's right next to a disaster on tree fruit."
Chicago-area farmers markets, many of which have already opened, are likely to watch this disaster play out in coming months, with scant and expensive supplies of peaches, cherries, apricots, plums and apples.
Mark Longstroth, a fruit educator with the Michigan State University extension, has been touring local farms in recent weeks to assess the damage. He says the picture is grim.
"We'll be lucky to see a third of the crop this year," Longstroth said.
He noted that although trees saw some damage from cold nights in early and mid-April, it was the very late April frosts that dealt the worst blow.
"We were all very depressed with those widespread freezes" on April 27 and 29, he said. "They caused a lot of damage, and now we are just waiting to see the extent."
At Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, Ill., the picture is not much better.
"It affected us a lot," said Doreen Nichols of Nichols Farm, which grows fruits and vegetables for more than a dozen Chicago-area farmers markets and several restaurants. "We had such an early spring and it looked like it was going to be a great year, but then we had that cold snap when it went down to 28 degrees. Now I think we've lost about 90 percent of the apple crop."
Seedling Enterprises' Adam Houseman echoes her sentiments.
"It looks bad for tree fruit," Houseman said of the crops at Seedling Orchard, located in South Haven, Mich. "It definitely looks bad for the whole state, but we won't know the full extent of the damage for a couple of weeks."
If there is a bright side to this year's Midwestern fruit season, it may be in the berries. These plants, which bloom later and are easier to protect than fruit trees, appear to have survived fairly well.
In fact, Klug said he may have local strawberries to bring to Chicago farmers markets as early as this week's Green City Market, to accompany all the early rhubarb. Longstroth reported that the Michigan blueberry harvest may be just as big as last year's (which is to say about 70 million pounds, slightly down from 2010's 90 million), and Nichols said her family's blackberries "look better than they've ever looked."
Summer table grapes took a hit, but later-blooming grapes may do much better, each added.
"Grapes are starting to come back, but it's a little early to estimate," Longstroth said. "We are looking at a third of a crop for table grapes, but for wine grapes I am hearing only about 25 to 50 percent losses."
Local vegetables are also still on track, most say, with a flood of asparagus that arrived as early as a month ago and should be out in abundance as long as temperatures stay moderately cool.
Despite the damaged trees, farmers expect to have at least some tree fruit to bring to local markets this summer, albeit at higher prices.
"We will have a little bit of everything to put on the table, but probably no wholesale fruit business this year," Klug said with resignation. "When you have summer in March, this is going to happen."
Early farmers markets
A few Chicago-area farmers markets have already opened, including those in Evanston and Palos Heights and the Green City Market in Chicago, but the next week will see several additional area markets launch for the season. Here's a list of markets that will open in the next week or so:
•La Grange, Thursday
•Eden Place (Chicago), Saturday
•Oak Park, Saturday