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Farmers awaiting cold’s toll

We know the snow was deep and the temperatures numbingly cold for prolonged stretches this winter, but we do not yet know how the harshest winter in recent memory will affect Niagara County’s fruit harvest.

Local growers say that’s something they might not fully know for months, but the early line is cautiously optimistic. For some fruit farmers, particularly wine-grape growers, it might just mean adopting a different way of pruning now to invite better success later.

James Bittner, president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau, said he’s been taking cuttings from some of the 400 acres of fruit trees he raises in Appleton at Bittner-Singer Orchards.

“We won’t know until the flowers come out,” he said. “The real test will be when the apricot trees start setting their crops, around the second week of May.”

Bittner said the crop that he grows that is most sensitive to subzero temperatures is the peach, and he grows around 30 varieties, including nectarines.

“Some of the varieties have been hurt, but you only need 10 percent of the blossoms, and so we have the potential for a full crop for every variety,” he said.

“We are expecting a more normal or late spring, and that’s OK with me,” he said. “There is still ice in the lakes, and there is still two to four feet of frost in the ground.”

Bittner’s biggest crop is apples, with more than 25 varieties, but the apricots will be the first to bloom. Normally they would blossom around the last week of April, he said, but they will be delayed this year to around mid-May. They will be followed by the sweet cherries, which are the first to be harvested, usually around July 4, he added.

Bittner, who has been growing fruit since 1991, said, “And I don’t ever recall a winter as cold as this one was, where we had so many times that we went below zero.”

“We went below zero seven times,” he said. “It started Jan. 9, when we were 9 degrees below zero, and the last time was Feb. 17, when we were 9 degrees below zero again,” he said. “Most years, because we’re right along the lake, we don’t get below zero at all.”

Bittner noted that while the wine-grape crop may be affected, the juice-grape crop should not.

When James and Kathy Baker purchased 31 acres on the banks of Eighteen Mile Creek in Newfane in 2006, they knew they had found a “sweet spot” with protective Lake Ontario only a couple of miles away to ward away the coldest temperatures in winter.

They immediately planted grapes and now tend 5½ acres of 11 varieties to create their fine, dry European-style wines at their Chateau Niagara, 2466 W. Creek Road. They are preparing to plant another acre in coming weeks.

“This has been our harshest winter,” Jim Baker said, recalling a night when the thermometer dropped to 11 below zero. “A lot of snow helps cover the vines and protect them as the temperature drops, but the bulk of the buds were exposed,” he said. The vine trunks reach about 32 inches tall at this stage, with laterals spreading beyond.

“We collect samples of canes and slice open the buds to see if they are alive or dead,” he explained. “We look at all of the varieties we’ve planted, and our Gewurztraminer really took it on the chin, with a 50 percent bud loss. If we were to prune these vines in the traditional way, we would lose the grapes. But we can adapt by changing our pruning techniques, and we can revive the canes and leave more buds at the base and see how they survive. We can always cut more off later, but we can’t add buds.”

Baker samples three layers of the bud – the primary, secondary and tertiary – when making his assessments and charts his data, with a nod to his day job as an aerospace engineer for Moog Inc.

“We have sampled all of our grapes, and the range is a 50 percent bud mortality in our Gewurztraminer to a 5 percent loss in our Merlot, with the bulk experiencing a 20 percent mortality,” he said. “We expect our vines won’t be as fruitful this year.”

“We’ve already started pruning, which we start when we get past the deep cold, normally starting in February, but we will extend well into March this year,” he added. “We do all of the pruning by hand, and it will take our pruner, Joe Moberg, a month and a half to prune our 5½ acres.

“The buds break around the end of April, but we won’t really know until midsummer what our total tally is,” he said. “I have seen buds push out slowly in an effort to survive and give up the ghost and die, but that was due to buying diseased plants, not the weather.”

Baker said his friends at Arrowhead Spring Vineyards in Lockport have sampled their buds and are reporting similar mortality numbers.

“This harsh winter seems to have had a blanket effect on the vineyards,” he said. “But our hearts really go out to the vineyard owners in Chautauqua, where they had temperatures of 17 degrees below zero, and some have had complete vine mortality.”

Melinda “Mindy” Vizcarra, of Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards in Gasport, said she doesn’t remember a winter like this since the 1970s or early 1980s. Her farm is celebrating its 120th year in the family, with her children creating the fifth generation working the land. They have 350 acres, 100 of them in fruit.

“This winter has been so long, with so many cold days in a row,” she said.

“But our apples can take this cold weather. We’re hoping we haven’t had too much damage to our strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. We hope we don’t have a total wipeout, but we won’t really know until they bloom. The grapes that are native to this area I don’t think will have too much damage, but we’re expecting some damage with our vinifera, or European grapes. It’s our Riesling we’re most worried about.”

Bittner said he’s eager to see if one benefit of the frigid winter might be that the icy temperatures killed off some insects that have been bothering his crops in previous years.

“We hope there’s some upside to this,” he said.

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