23 Oct 2012

I'm not so sure about the "best of times"...


NIAGARA - For Phil Tregunno, it was an early sign that cast a chill on this year’s harvest prospects.
Last April, the thermometer slid to -4°C or colder in parts of Niagara and southern Ontario.
For many stone fruit and apple farms away from the Great Lakes — and without warming wind machines — the result was devastating.
Well-developed blossoms and buds on apples, pears, cherries and plums were done for.
Many apple and cherry orchards were all but wiped out.
“I thought we definitely were in for a wild ride,” said Tregunno, a Niagara-on-the-Lake stone tender fruit and wine grape grower.
“We had the earliest start on record as far as tender fruit is concerned, then that early frost.”
What followed was an arid, hot summer with near-record drought conditions. The spell was finally broken by September, but for some farmers without irrigation — many of them cash and grain crops — the damage was done.
Still, the result wasn’t as calamitous as many feared it might be by late summer.
“Definitely, location. Location was the big part of it this year,” said Tregunno.
“Certain areas got really hard hit ... there, cold be a quarter-mile difference from one grower’s best year to one grower’s worst year.
“Pears and cherries were pretty disastrous,” he said. “Plums got hit very hard.”
There were some surprises, however, as peaches ultimately did better than earlier thought. The grape harvest this season, with high sugar content, has been superb — for some growers, the choicest in some time.
But the overall story has been a troubling one for many farmers.
Apples, many of them grown in south and west Niagara, were all but juiced in areas without wind machines.
“Certainly, apple farmers with wind machines fared better in Niagara than those without,” said Kelly Ciceran, general manager of Ontario Apple Growers.
She estimates an 85 to 90% crop loss across Ontario.
“For Ontario apple farmers, this is at least a loss of $50 million-plus,” she said. “The impact will also be felt by our related industries.”
Niagara South Federation of Agriculture president Joe Schonberger concedes it has been a “challenging year” for many growers.
Schonberger, a Welland grower of soybeans and hay, said his hay crop is about 50% of normal, with no second cutting.
“There are a lot of people in the livestock business now having a lot of trouble getting hay,” he said.
As for soybeans, “there’s lots of dead patches where the crop didn’t get any water and died.”
In the big picture, the grower is looking at a soybean crop of about half to two-thirds.
“Yields have been all over the map,” said Horst Bohner, a soybean specialist for the provincial agriculture ministry.
“I think Niagara … is suffering from more soy bean yield loss than some of the others, and that’s the way the weather patterns came through.
“Certainly, there are some good crops in Niagara on some soils with better water holding capacity,” he said.
“And the prices are very good, so that helps lot in terms of the overall picture.”
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