Weather damages blueberries, apple trees at local fruit farm

Joel Stottrup / Union-Eagle Carol Whitcomb, in front of one of the dead apple trees at J.Q. Fruit Farm and Orchard.
Joel Stottrup / Union-Eagle
Carol Whitcomb, in front of one of the dead apple trees at J.Q. Fruit Farm and Orchard.

Poor growing weather this year is apparently the cause of the local J.Q. Fruit Farm and Orchard having an approximately 75 percent drop in saleable blueberries and losing more than 25 of its mature apple trees to a blight.
Dan and Carol Whitcomb own the business north of Princeton city limits. Besides raspberries, it has 6 acres of blueberry plants and a little more than 4 acres of apple trees. The Whitcombs rely on the business for much of their livelihood.
Carol Whitcomb talked about their situation last week.
“It wasn’t just the wetness, but the long winter that affected the blueberries,” she began. The extended cold spring caused an absence of blueberries on the upper portions of the blueberry plants, where the snow wasn’t providing insulation, she said.
Also, what blueberries there have been in the lower plant portions have not all been ripening as usual. Carol Whitcomb showed large clusters of white, unripe blueberries on the blueberry bushes, explaining that the normal ripening progression is from green to white, then to a cranberry color and finally blue.
The cooler nights during much of the summer so far this year have not been good for ripening the blueberries, and nights are when a lot of the ripening process occurs, she explained.
Blueberries make up a significant part of the business’s revenue, she added.
As a result, the Whitcombs have had to twice cut short the hours of the business’s you-pick blueberry picking time and canceled one day of self-picking, she noted.
“I like people to have a good experience,” and if there are more pickers than there are ripe blueberries, the experience wouldn’t be good, she said.
Carol Whitcomb mentioned a radio weather broadcaster stating there had been a “polar vortex” in mid-July this year that brought cooler than normal temperatures for that time of year.
The Whitcombs are longtime members of the Princeton-Zimmerman Farmers Market Association, and Carol Whitcomb said she has talked to other members and found that some have had an extra fuel expense heating greenhouses in the spring when the weather continued cool.
“The weather affected a lot of people,” she said.
At the same time, a lot of people don’t understand the weather challenges that growers have, she continued. She told of one woman who has come out to the J.Q. farm for years and asking this year why the big drop in their blueberry production. Whitcomb said she told the woman that it was because of not enough snow covering the tops of the plants when the cold lingered and how snow insulates perennials from frost.
Many don’t understand what it takes to get fruit to come to the point of being ready for market, Carol Whitcomb said. It’s a “constant struggle” surviving various kinds of bad weather, including hail, she added.
Carol Whitcomb also recounted instances of people telling her they can find blueberries cheaper at a particular store. She said she no longer argues with them, just tells them to go to the that store and buy those blueberries. Some might not realize that the blueberries at J.Q. Fruit Farm and Orchard are grown without herbicides and pesticides and are very fresh and less susceptible to spoilage because of being hand picked, she added. But can a person find any evidence of that with the store blueberries, she asked.
Carol Whitcomb noted that their raspberry crop is good this year, but also said that good fortune will not be enough to make up for their loss in the blueberry and the apple crops.
She mentioned two other downsides because of the weather’s effect this year on their business: They did not have enough blueberries to sell to their wholesale customers, and they had to let some employees go early this year. Whitcomb called it a “trickle-down effect.”
Each growing year is different in Minnesota and “this year is more extreme,” she added. She characterized the year as being one of the worst she has known for growers. “We’ve had some years of no blueberries, but at least we had a decent crop of apples,” she said.
The apple problem
Carol Whitcomb remembers the day two months ago when her husband asked her if she had noticed anything different in the orchard when she mowed there the day before. She remembers telling him no, and then him saying, “We’ve got dead trees out there.” She said the two then went to the orchard and found his observation to be true.
At first there were some dead Connell Red apple trees and later noticed some dead Honeygolds. She also suspects that they may have lost a couple State Fair apple trees.
The problem is fire blight and it is caused by bacteria, Carol Whitcomb said.
“I believe it had to do with the wetness, the long spring,” she said. “The apple trees had no chance to dry out. It rained, and rained and rained.”
She added that bees spread the fire blight bacteria during pollination and that a person doesn’t notice right away that the damage has begun. It begins with the leaves curling up, turning black and dying, she said.
Carol Whitcomb continued that if someone notices a dead limb on their apple tree, they should cut it off to try to prevent the spread of the bacteria, but sometimes it is too late.
Having to cut down more than two dozen dead apple trees was a shock to the Whitcombs, as Carol Whitcomb said that early in the growing season they were anticipating a “bumper crop.” She said the weather affected the apple blossoms in general, so there will be fewer apples in their orchard this year.
In fact, she and her husband are contemplating whether or not to open their orchard for people to come in and pick apples this year as they have in the past, because the crop is down.