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Early winter blast struck end-of-harvest blow to Okanagan apple growers

The early season snow followed by a blast of Arctic air in the southern Interior last weekend has wreaked havoc on apple and grape crops bringing an abrupt end to the harvest.
The early season snow followed by a blast of Arctic air in the southern Interior last weekend has wreaked havoc on apple and grape crops bringing an abrupt end to the harvest.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK / BX Press Cidery and Orchard

The early season snow followed by a blast of Arctic air in the southern Interior last weekend has wreaked havoc on apple and grape crops bringing an abrupt end to the harvest.

The heavy snowfall that fell last Friday, Oct. 23, followed by several days of below freezing weather, struck an end-of-season blow to apple growers already struggling through a year of low prices and labour shortages.

B.C. Fruit Growers Association general manager Glen Lucas said it's a concern with varying degrees of crop damage that is still being assessed.

He said it could take a few weeks to know just how much damage was done to what remained of the Okanagan apple crop. There could even have been bud damage that will result in lower fruit production next year.

“Apples froze in some locations. That fruit won’t be packed," Lucas said. "The amount of fruit remaining on trees also varies from area to area, some of which were hit by damaging temperatures and others that might not have suffered as much."

At the BX Press Cidery and Orchard in Vernon, Melissa Dobernigg said she and partner Dave's apple season came to a sudden and unexpected stop.

The orchard’s Ambrosia apples were damaged beyond salvage by temperatures that dipped to -12 Celsius, and Melissa said they are doing what they can to salvage the remaining Aurora and Spartan crop for cider and juice.

“It’s been an emotional week. Dave’s out trying to pick the remainder of the crop this morning,” Dobernigg said today, Oct. 29.

The sudden weather change capped a season that was already a couple of weeks behind due to a slow start last spring.

“We were struggling before the weekend to get the crop off. The snow wasn’t that much of a problem by itself but it interfered with us getting the crop off before temperatures really dipped. Apples have a threshold of around -7 C, after which most varieties don’t recover,” she said.

The recovered apples can’t be used for the fresh market, but the Doberniggs have a cider and juice operation that helps soften the financial blow for them. Most of the apples grown on their 30-acre orchard go to B.C. Tree Fruits and the rest go to the orchard’s cider and juice operations.

“We lost a lot of top grade Ambrosia. It was a beautiful crop this year, and most of what is left is just mush on the tree,” Dobernigg says.

Okanagan grape vines didn
Okanagan grape vines didn't take long to drop their leaves after being hit by last weekend's cold and snow.

The weekend cool down was less devastating to the region’s grape growers. The fruit was ripe enough when the cold weather hit, and growers’ biggest problem since has been a more urgent need to pick the fruit.

At Kamloops’s Harper Trail Winery, winemaker Sébastien Hotte said the cold actually brought the community together as the winery gathered a number of local pickers to get the fruit off the vine earlier this week.

"Last year the frost was two weeks early. Once it freezes, the vines go into dormancy and don't produce anymore, so the grapes don't ripen anymore," he says.

“We wanted to pick before the rains that have been falling off and on the last few days. We didn’t have our picking teams, so we put a post up and were able to hire a bunch of local people. We were able to get everything picked quickly,” he said.

In the South Okanagan, Arterra Vineyards grower Troy Osborne said the sudden weather change “certainly put things in high gear for us."

Osborne manages vineyards for Arterra Wines in the Oliver and Osoyoos areas.

He said the sudden cold caused leaf canopies to dry up and go crusty, and if that material gets into the wine it can have a negative affect.

The sudden frost can also cause stems to degrade, causing fruit to fall off the vine.

“We usually have a week and a half to two weeks to finish harvest after a hard frost, which is -6 Celsius or colder,” he said.

The weekend cold has meant accelerating the picking schedule, but that’s about the extent of the damage, as the fruit had reached its desired level of ripeness.

“We actually went through the same thing last year, but it was worse because it happened earlier in October,” he said.

Osborne said fruit quality is exceptional this year, driven by the great late summer and early fall weather in August and September, combined with smaller yields due to cool weather in the spring.

“We’re seeing ripe fruit with nice flavours without super high sugars and soft tannins,” Osborne said.

The early below zero weather didn't do anything to advance what looks like a much reduced ice wine crop this year.

B.C. Wine Institute communications director Laura Kittmer said only eight wineries have registered their intention to make ice wine. The deadline for registration to make ice wine is Nov. 6.

The earliest ice wine pick on record was Oct. 31, 2002, which was also the coldest and longest ice wine season on record. That year saw the last grapes picked on Feb. 25, 2003.

Kittmer said the last two years' ice wine production has been in decline, from highs of 922.39 tonnes in 2013 and 765.4 tonnes in 2014, to 273.12 tonnes in 2018 and 204. 22 tonnes last year.

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