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New England fruit farmers begin to reimagine crops as climate shifts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A good fall apple harvest in New England depends on things that happened months before. And this year many farms have no fruit because of a freezing night in mid-May. As New Hampshire Public Radio's Mara Hoplamazian reports, in a warming climate, fruit farmers are having to reimagine their crops.

MARA HOPLAMAZIAN, BYLINE: It was about 10:30 at night when Chuck and Diane Souther's alarm went off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM BEEPING)

HOPLAMAZIAN: It's a thermal alarm. It takes the temperature out in the apple orchard and rings if it dips too low. That Thursday night in May in Concord, N.H., it was about 35 degrees. And it kept getting colder.

CHUCK SOUTHER: By the middle of the night, it was 32 and dropping.

HOPLAMAZIAN: The orchard had been in full bloom - that's normal for mid-May - and this year's was particularly good.

DIANE SOUTHER: We called it a popcorn bloom because the tree was just white with flowers.

HOPLAMAZIAN: But by the next morning, things looked different.

C SOUTHER: The blossoms by 9:00 were turning brown. All the petals went from white to brown.

HOPLAMAZIAN: Chuck and Diane started to cut open baby apples, smaller than a pencil eraser.

C SOUTHER: Because there's a certain amount of sap in there, you know, that water expands when it freezes. When it freezes, it expands and destroys that cell and destroys the seeds. And no seeds, no apples.

HOPLAMAZIAN: No apples - that's a problem for the Souther's farm. It's called Apple Hill. They typically have cars lining their driveway in the fall with families waiting to pick apples. This year the trees are green with no fruit. That's the situation at many farms across New Hampshire. The director of the state's Farm Service Agency says this year was unprecedented. Hundreds of acres of crops froze during two big cold snaps, first peaches in February, then apples in May. And Chuck Souther says he sees weather conditions changing for his farm and others. He's hesitant to talk about the causes, but he says there's less predictability from season to season.

C SOUTHER: You don't have to be, you know, a scientist to figure out things are different right now.

HOPLAMAZIAN: Jason Lando is a scientist, and he agrees things are different.

JASON LONDO: We are changing the stability of all of our seasons.

HOPLAMAZIAN: Londo is a professor of horticulture at Cornell University, and he studies how fruit crops are adapting to human-driven climate change. He says not every damaging event like that may freeze indicates a changing climate. But as the atmosphere warms, the temperatures apple trees have adapted to over thousands of years are shifting. Fruit needs a certain number of hours each winter to stay cold and dormant. Then, when it gets warm outside, trees wake up and get ready to bloom. But Londo says fall, winter, and spring are all getting warmer and throwing the cycle off.

LONDO: Climate change is impacting how our fruit crops perceive the safest time to wake up in the spring.

HOPLAMAZIAN: The problem, Londo says, is they're waking up earlier, but the threat of cold isn't going away. Farmers across the country are dealing with these changes. This year in Georgia, January and February were super-warm. Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist with the University of Georgia, says that set peach trees up to fail.

PAM KNOX: The peaches bloomed two or three weeks early, depending on the variety. And we got - we went back into a cooler weather pattern in March. And we got two frosts two weekends in a row.

HOPLAMAZIAN: That froze almost all of the commercial peaches in the state, she says. And with climate change posing an increasing threat, growers and scientists are trying a few different things to adapt.

KNOX: One is to try different varieties of the same crop that they've been growing. So you might grow a apple that has fewer chill hours than the previous apple that you're growing.

HOPLAMAZIAN: In Washington state, scientists have developed a spray to help insulate fruit. In Georgia, some farmers are growing citrus or olives. In New Hampshire, the Southers are relying on sales from their farm stand this fall and booking events. And Chuck Souther says he and Diana are thinking about backup plans.

C SOUTHER: How are we going to deal with this in the future if this is the new normal? Or hope - could be really nice if we could just say, oh, this is going to be the one we're going to talk about and our grandkids are going to talk about, you know, remember 2023? But we don't know that.

HOPLAMAZIAN: For now, he says he's optimistic about next year's apples. But the next farmers at Apple Hill could be growing different crops. For NPR News, I'm Mara Hoplamazian in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Hoplamazian