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Too-early spring takes a toll Growers of cherries and apples are paying for the unseasonably warm weather we've had this season, as recent frosts devastate this year's crops

Unseasonably warm temperatures raised the spirits of those who identify March with snow and slush more than sun and shorts.

il,6l,0p,120,5p But here and across the state, the early spring has decimated the cherry crop and could also hurt New York's beloved apples.

"The cherry crop is gone," said Oscar Vizcarra of Gasport's Becker Farms. "I've been a farmer for 35 years, and we've never seen any such devastation."

While warm weather meant early cherry and apple tree blooms in fertile communities not far from Lake Ontario, cold nights since the warm stint in mid-March have frozen buds and put a dent in statewide tart cherry production, most of which occurs in Niagara and Monroe counties.

"Western New York is known worldwide for its relatively frost-free produce area that is Lake Ontario," said Terence Robinson, a horticulture professor at Cornell University. "This year, we've flowered so early that we just couldn't make it through."

Farmers such as Vizcarra, who grows apples and cherries, say that means less picking and prices that could double, from $2.50 per pound to $5. Sweet cherries could also be gone earlier than usual.

"In July, we usually have hundreds of people come to our ranch to pick sweet cherries," he said. "That won't happen this year."

Tart cherries, which are used to make pies, could see a 40 percent statewide decline because of cooler temperatures here and in the Hudson River valley. Local farmers hope to reap half the normal harvest.

"Every time it gets 28 or 29 [degrees], it just takes a couple percent away," said Dan Sievert of Lakeview Orchards in Burt. "It's hard to say where we'll end up."

Sievert, whose farm sells processed and frozen cherries to pie companies such as Sara Lee and Mrs. Smith's, said local orchards and roadside stands will hurt the most. But consumers might also see prices increase for supermarket pies, he said.

The danger for the tart cherry crop isn't limited to New York State. Northern Michigan, which produces most of the nation's cherries, has been hurt by the frost, though not as much as local harvests.

"Our loss could be made up by theirs," Robinson said. "If they get more frost -- because there's still a long way to go -- that's when you would see a reduction in the crop from a national importance."

Through the unusual temperatures, the warm air of Lake Ontario protected farms within a mile of the shore. Some growers there, such as Singer Farms in Appleton, have a nearly full crop of cherries, apples and peaches.

But farther inland, fruit that bloomed early because of the sunny weather was, in farmer parlance, "burned," and cherry buds weren't the only victims.

Early blooms of New York's signature Empire and Macintosh apples were destroyed on some farms, with one farmer noting his crop was lessened by 40 percent.

But many of the apples bloom later than cherries and escaped the initial frost. In addition, some parts of the apple flower can bloom with partial damage, and if temperatures warm over the next two weeks, there could be no serious threat, experts say.

The state has had five straight years of high apple production, Robinson said, and typically produces 30 million bushels. That number could be more like 25 million this year, with slight price increases.

"I'm expecting the apple crop to be much less affected by those frosts," Robinson said. "Maybe you might squeeze through the month of April without damage."

Like the heartier Rome and Golden Delicious apples, fruits such as raspberries, blueberries and strawberries bloom later and likely won't be affected by the frost.

"There are some people whose favorite pie is sour cherry pie," Vizcarra said. "This year, they might have to live with strawberry or rhubarb."

Last month, when freezing temperatures were imminent, some farmers hoped their crops could be saved. In the aftermath of the frosts, one farmer continued his optimism.

Allan Buhr of Newroyal Orchards in Gasport said his 300 acres of apples and 30 acres of sweet cherries could still produce a harvest if warmer weather allows bees to pollinate the remaining crops.

"It would certainly be affected, but it would be a marketable crop," Buhr said. "I'm not ready to throw in the towel yet."

Others, like Vizcarra, said the key to surviving the summer lies in the raspberries, blueberries and, in some cases, peaches that have survived spring's strange wrath.

Vizcarra, who also owns a vineyard, said the frosts could make some wines harder to come by, but he said most of the grape crop along the Niagara Wine Trail was unaffected, since the buds did not fully bloom during the warmer temperatures.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com