Bakers Journal

The Final Proof: August-September 2012

August 30, 2012
By Stephanie Ortenzi

For those of us who don’t farm, talk of the weather is a trifle.

For those of us who don’t farm, talk of the weather is a trifle. For farmers, the weather is life’s blood, and it drained this spring like the necks of a vampire flick.

Ontario has lost 88 per cent of its 2012 apple crop. Since the province provides 40 per cent of the country’s apples, the shortfall’s ripple effect has been devastating.

What happened? An earlier than usual thaw brought on sprays of early blossoms, which would otherwise – again, for those of us who don’t farm – be lovely.

But for farmers, those blossoms became an absurd kind of alarm system. Would the blossoms manage to get through this early spring without a frost? No such luck. 

This crop failure is actually a continental story. New York state and Michigan shared similar weather and thus also had heavy losses. As of early June, reports put the New York state apple crop down 50 per cent and Michigan down 90 per cent.

For the U.S., Washington state is the chief supplier of apples, as much as 50 per cent, with New York state and Michigan taking second and third place.

For a quick picture of perspective, Washington state’s apple output is more than 20 times the size of the Okanagan’s, according to Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Grower’s Association. B.C. provides 23 per cent of the country’s apples. Lucas says Washington state is having a bumper crop, but he’s less quick to speculate about his own region’s harvest.

Hail is the biggest risk mid-summer for Okanagan apples. “There’s usually some hail damage at the end of the season,” explains Lucas, “but we were lucky last year not to have had any. It’s the first time in several years that no region in the Okanagan got hammered.” Touch wood. 

Quebec supplies 26 per cent of the country’s apples, and although the province had destructive weather similar to what Ontario had, Quebec managed to escape the weather’s destruction with considerably less damage.

On the east coast, New Brunswick grows one per cent of our apples, and Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley grows 10 per cent of our apples. The growing season is as unique as the region and gives Annapolis apples considerable competitive edge come harvest.

The region has cool evening temperatures well into late summer, enough rainfall for farmers not to have to contend with irrigation. The crops are less prone to dangerous weather or frost damage, which also makes them less prone to calcium deficiency, and, a curious feature, they’re said to have more colour.

The Annapolis crop is said to be looking good, but the market is jostling because shortfalls that would have usually been made up with Ontario apples will have to be made up elsewhere.

“The anticipated shortages mean the normal buying process is being sped up,” said Dela Erish, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association. Packers and buyers are surveying the market earlier than usual to see who can supply the needed quantities and what the prices might be. Neither can be known until harvest.

Back in Ontario, the damage was irregular but widespread, said Larissa Osborne, production analyst with the Ontario Apple Growers. “The trees are fine. Apart from fruit, they’re expecting to have a good year and to pull through wonderfully,” which is what the industry wants to hear. Bad weather makes for a rotten harvest, but the trees are not done for. There’s a future, which can sometimes fall out of sight in a crisis like this.

“Costs will rise in the short term,” said Brian Gilroy, Ontario Apple Growers chair, “and customers are locking in earlier,” because another element of uncertainty pertains to apple varieties. Northern Spy apples are considered best for cooking, and they’re going to be in limited supply this year.

It’s a pleasure to hear Gilroy, who is also a farmer, talk about varieties. About Granny Smiths being predominantly the domain of the Okanagan, Gilroy says: “We don’t grow as many here because they get a blush on the skin. We think of them as tree turnips. They keep forever. But a Crispin you need to take a bit more care with, and Mitsus, you have to handle like an egg and keep it in the fridge.”

Gilroy is at pains to insist to the media that apples will be available at the farm gate, at farmers markets and in grocery stores this year, and the supply, depending on the variety, will last until late September to Christmas.

And since the early word about Washington state is that there’s a bumper crop, and if the weather co-operates, our American neighbours will help keep costs in line because the shortages can be greatly mitigated. 

Stephanie Ortenzi ( ) is a Toronto-based food marketing writer.

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