A bumper crop burdens local trees
by Jeff Mortimer
"Apples are pretty tough," says Dale Lesser, who's grown them commercially for more than forty years at Lesser Farms in Dexter Township. "It's amazing that you can have an apple tree with twenty-plus bushels of apples. That's more than 800 pounds. How could a tree hold that much weight?"
This year, as fruit trees in general and apple trees in particular rebounded spectacularly from 2012's abysmal growing conditions, some of them haven't. Carl Burhop of Green Street Tree Care says the company has received "half a dozen or so" calls for help this year from residents with collapsing apple trees. How often does that happen in a typical season? "Rarely," says Burhop. "Last year was zero."
Even if they aren't falling down, "I've been looking at a lot of trees that are under stress because they're so laden with fruit," he says, "mostly apples, because they have the biggest, heaviest fruit."
A couple of crabapple trees have broken in Nichols Arboretum, too, says Tom O'Dell, a horticulturist there and at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, "but what contributes to that is rainfall. If you have a heavily fruited branch and add the weight of rainwater to that branch, that may be all it takes to break it."
The late-winter heat wave of 2012, followed by a killing spring frost and dry summer, devastated the yield but left the trees with plenty of leftover energy and nutrients that they poured into this year's crop. "They don't have a brain, but somehow they know they didn't have many fruits last year," says Mike Palmer, a colleague of O'Dell's. "Also, the plant needs to procreate. If we're going into a five-year drought, it wants to produce as many seeds as possible, not to keep itself alive but for the species to survive."
The bumper crop should have been a bonanza for fruit shoppers, but damage from a couple of late spring hailstorms blunted its effect. "It wasn't every apple by any means, but I had so many apples that I saw a one-inch gash in them," says Bruce Upston, co-owner of Wasem Fruit Farm in Milan.
"It's not a total loss by any means," Upston says. "We'll be able to sell some of them as seconds and use a lot of them for cider-but we're going to have to be a little more diligent when we're sorting fruit than we would be in normal years."
[Originally published in November, 2013.]