Facing Wildly Fluctuating Weather Challenges - An Apple Orchard Story

Jan 15, 2013

Chores don't end after a bad yield, even in the middle of winter; Deidre Birmingham has lots of pruning to do.
Credit Susan Bence

Later Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council will release a map ranking the states for extreme weather conditions over the last year.

We’ve already learned that Wisconsin is in the top ten because of the summer drought.

That is no surprise to many residents – from farmers to scientists.

We begin a series of stories on how people here intend to cope with increasingly erratic weather.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence takes us first to an apple orchard in southwestern Wisconsin.

Just a smidge over two years ago, I met Deirdre Birmingham. It was the early days of her apple orchard in Iowa County. She made one thing clear – she believes food should be cultivated without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

"I think everybody should have access to organically grown foods, I think it’s better for the environment, it’s better for our human health,” Birmingham said.

Over the last four years, Birmingham has hand-planted baby apple trees. So far, 1200 of them are growing on her gently rolling acres.

“We planted our trees on the contour there; slopis is good because you want cold air to drain away to help prevent frost, the early season frost,” Birmingham said.

Today, on a bone-chilling afternoon, we walk the snow-crusted slopes of Cider Farm. Birmingham’s orchard has grown two-fold. “I grafted these trees myself and tended them in the tree nursery," Birmingham says.

But 2012 presented dramatic weather conditions. “The trees started getting summer in March; so we had at least a week of 80 plus degree weather and hot dry winds so the trees woke and were ready to go,’ Birmingham says.

Dealing Birmingham’s orchard and others, a blow. “We got freezes in April, the last week of April in fact; we had what are considered 90 percent killing frost on three nights in a row,’ Birmingham says.

Rather than the 500 bushels she anticipated, Birmingham harvested a meager 100.

Unpredictable weather patterns also prevented her from planting the baby trees she nurtured. “They were the best trees I ever grafted – they just jumped up and grew; they were just big and wonderful and they were all just; I lost a lot of them,’ Birmingham says.

Still, Birmingham considers herself to be luckier than some. Her English cider varieties are late blooming, and those that survived, she described as spectacular. “All of that drought intensified the flavors, because a lot of these trees, they’re sort of the wine grapes of apples so they’re high in tannins; they’re high in acids and complex flavors and that complexity really came through because the apples didn’t have a lot of water to dilute any of that down,’ Birmingham says.

Yet, Birmingham is far from hitting her target.

“We have over a thousand in the tree nursery that we’ll plant out this year and next year and every year planting out more and we have a thousand on order, and I’ll be grafting again in March, just keep it going. But we hope to have 7,000 to 8,000 trees,’ Birmingham says.

Birmingham and her husband began their married life wanting to run a farm-based business, understood the risks; but mind-bending climate challenges were not penciled on their checklist.

For instance, many orchards in Wisconsin never bothered with irrigation.

“We put in irrigation this year; we were having to tank water trees at the same time we were trying to get an irrigation system in to try to make up for the major water deficit; we were in the extreme drought category,’ Birmingham says.

Birmingham says, in addition to piping water to her fruit trees, she’s now considering planting baby trees later than tradition has dictated.

“Now we’re even considering planting trees in the fall next year out of our tree nursery if they’re ready which you just don’t do around here, but it seems the winters aren’t that cold; the ground isn’t frozen yet this year; it didn’t freeze last winter,’ Birmingham says.

Warming up inside the cozy trailer with a cup a tea, Birmingham says she’s exploring other ways to create a more resilient orchard.

That might include using a hoop house – a portable – yet sturdy – greenhouse – to protect her young “graftlings” from freezing, until they’re strong enough make it in the orchard.

“Then we can give them a really strong head start,’ Birmingham says.

Birmingham came to the apple business with a solid foundation – she earned a master’s in soil fertility in the 80s and serves on national and state research-oriented groups.

She says scientists have developed models for predicting insect and disease cycles, but when unexpected climate shifts hit....

“...we start getting into uncharted territories where the models start to break down because we’ve had more consistent weather patterns in the past and we don’t know how the extreme heat, for instance, will affect the pest or disease lifecycle,’ Birmingham says.

Birmingham says there are many good brains out there puzzling out these questions.

“And there could be answers out there, but we need to be digging with the research community to help us and identify what the researchable questions are they can do something about,’ Birmingham says.

Birmingham harbors zero expectations that weather in 2013 will be “normal.”

So she’s arming herself with education; right now slogging through a book on tree fruit physiology.