Erratic weather patterns may have all but eliminated the peach crop in Pelham this year, as early numbers from the Tender Fruit Alert program place survival rates at 6%, well below last year’s figures. By comparison, the rest of the Niagara Region is looking at a 65%-75% rate of bud survival.
The damage was done in February, when the trees were subjected to large temperature changes over a relatively short period of time. These erratic weather patterns impacted the peach trees’ bud hardiness and left them unusually vulnerable to cold weather.
“Because the weather had been fluctuating so much throughout the winter, the peaches lost their cold hardiness,” explained Zach Haist of R.C. Haist Farms in Fenwick. “The peach buds started reacting to the warmer temperatures, and were killed when those temperatures suddenly dropped.”
Though peach trees throughout the region were all at risk, only Pelham’s temperatures fell far enough to cause significant damage. This, says Ryan Brewster of Ker Crop Management Systems, is a result of Pelham’s position atop the Niagara Escarpment.
“Generally the Pelham area loses the moderating effect from the water, from the lakes,” he said. “Air moving across the lake warms up, and then as it hits land it remains a relatively warmer air mass, then as it goes above the escarpment it cools off again.”
Though the difference in temperature might only be a couple of degrees, those few degrees made all the difference this year, as farmers like the Haists can attest. The numbers suggest they will have 90% fewer peaches than last year, which was an average crop. Luckily the Haists have not put all their peaches in one basket, and have a number of trees outside of Pelham.
“Our idea of insurance is to spread things out around Niagara,” said Zach, “that’s why we’ve rented in other places throughout the region.”
Randy Haist, who recalls a total crop failure in the late 80’s, and another bad year in 2012, recognizes that climate change may mean more of these kinds of winters, but does not see it changing the overall strategy on the farm.
“There’s peaks and valleys,” he said. “As long as the valley isn’t too long, you just ride it out. You put it away when you got it coming, and you suck it up when it’s tough.”
With 12 acres heavily damaged, this will likely get chalked up as a tough year, at least as far as Pelham peaches are concerned. But with strong projections still in place for the rest of the region, and Pelham’s other tender fruit crops still in good shape, Niagara residents won’t have to go without, and farmers like the Haists will still have plenty to offer come harvest time.