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Iowa City's Wilson Orchard braves summer drought

BY BRIANNA JETT | AUGUST 31, 2012 6:30 AM

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Wilson’s Orchard seems to have it all: apple trees spread across rolling green hills, the laughter of children mingling with the sound of the wind whistling through the leaves, and a friendly dog who roams the parking lot with a stick in his mouth.

But if orchard-goers pause and look closer, they will notice a color lacking in the green trees — a color not in its usual abundance. Because of an early spring, the apple crop at Wilson’s Orchard has dropped 50 percent.

“It has been quite a challenging year,” said Paul Rasch, the owner of Wilson’s Orchard, noting that he had to increase prices by about 20 percent.

Last winter’s mild weather led into an early — and very warm — spring. This warmth allowed the apple trees to bloom early — six weeks early.

“By the end of March, we had pretty much full bloom,” Rasch said. “Then we had regular April weather, and that was the problem.”

Iowa City was not the only place to suffer.

Peter Hirst of Purdue University’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture said the problem stretches across the Midwest. He predicts the Midwest lost roughly 70 percent of the fruit crop this year, because of the early and especially warm spring.

“The effects this year have been dramatic,” he said. “This has been the worst crop we’ve had in Indiana and in much of the Midwest — probably since 1936.”

Even though no one can completely predict the weather, Wilson’s was prepared to combat Jack Frost when it arrived in April.

“It certainly seems to many fruit growers and many farmers that erratic weather is becoming more normal. It’s becoming the new norm,” Rasch said. “Our biggest thing is frost, and of course we can’t control the temperature.”

Every winter, the Wilson’s Orchard workers trim their trees, piling up the brush in the very lowest part of the orchard. The trees are planted in a valley, so some are much lower than others. When cold weather sets in, it settles in the low areas — those trees are at the most risk. What weapon does Rasch use to counter the cold? Fire.

“We only have one chance at it,” he said.

Rasch waits until he believes the frost is at its worst, and then he lights the brush pile on fire. That fire warms the trees in about a 600- to1,000-foot area. This method helps but does not completely nullify the effects of the frost.

“Our U-Pick operations have suffered quite a bit this year,” Rasch said.

U-Pick allows community members to pick their own apples, the price dependent on the weight of their purchase. The U-Pick service is a big draw for customers.

“They like the experience of having the kids go out and pick apples,” said Barb Schintler, a retail manager for Wilson’s Orchard.

Young brothers Max and Dylan Carlson, who are regular fall customers, agreed they would be disappointed if they couldn’t pick apples out of the trees anymore.

“I love it because the apples taste good,” Dylan said while spending the day at Wilson’s Orchard with his family.

Schintler said customers have definitely noticed a difference in the number of apples available for picking this year. While many customers don’t understand the reason behind the decrease, they all agree losing the apples would be a tremendous loss.

“Being a traditionalist, I’d feel really bad,” said avid customer Joanne Peterson, who can’t count how many annual trips she has made to the orchard — she guesses somewhere between 15 and 20.

Although the crop has decreased, there are still plenty of apples, Rasch said.

“We feel lucky that we have the crop we have,” he said. “Not everybody does.”


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