If we ever needed reminding about the risks of farming in Ontario, this summer has provided it. While strawberries were gorgeous and the grape farmers are licking their lips over this year’s fall harvest, Niagara’s tender fruit farmers took a licking. And it was so promising early on with hot weather in March providing the potential for an early and beautiful crop. But, while farmers are often seen as pessimists, in this case, those who professed their fear that the early budding would lead to disaster had their fears confirmed. April frost destroyed the sour cherry crop in one or two nights.
The July harvest saw farmers in our region harvesting crops of 10 to 20 per cent of normal volumes… those who harvested the crop at all. For some, it was more expensive to harvest the few cherries on the trees than to just let them fall.
This is the second year in a row that the cherry farmers have been smacked by Mother Nature. Last year, a good looking crop was devastated by two weeks of cold, rainy weather just as pollination was beginning. The bees, who do much of the pollination, never left their hives, and the wet weather put a damper on the natural wind pollination.
The only bright spot for farmers is that these last two years have proven the effectiveness of some recent farm technology. While wind machines have been around since the 1920’s in California, they have made inroads into the Niagara area only relatively recently, and grape growers were the first to experiment with their benefits. Now, they are springing up in tender fruit orchards at an increasing rate. The theory is that a properly tuned wind machine can drive warm air down onto the fruit trees or grape vines, keeping them warm enough to prevent frost damage to the developing fruit. The air at 20 meters can be 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the air at crop level. The machines are also used on frigidly cold nights to prevent damage to the trees and vines themselves.
Installing a wind machine at between 30 and 50 thousand dollars a pop (plus $30 to $40 an hour to run) is a gamble. But, one machine can protect up to 15 acres of crop (more for low-lying fruit like grapes), depending on the terrain and local conditions. This year, where wind machines were installed, growers harvested an almost full crop of cherries, and with prices very high thanks to the small crop, the machines virtually paid for themselves in one harvest.
Yes, it’s true that wind machines are noisy creatures. They sound something like a helicopter hovering over the orchard. (In fact, helicopters have been used to blow warm air down on at-risk crops in many areas, including Niagara.) But for the few nights per year when they are employed, it’s almost comforting to hear them, knowing that they are protecting a precious crop and keeping our farmers in business and our delicious tender fruit available. Give me a cherry orchard, even with the wind machines, over a sub division any day!