Ontario Agriculture: Volatile Spring Weather Devastates Fruit Crops, Threatens Employment

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ONTARIO CROPS SPRING WEATHER
The early warm weather in March, followed by sudden flash freezes, has caused devastating losses to tender fruit and apple growers in a large part of southern Ontario. (CP photo) | CP

TORONTO - Early warm weather in March, followed by sudden flash freezes, has caused devastating losses to tender fruit and apple growers in a large part of southern Ontario, industry insiders said Wednesday.

Wild swings in temperature have left several apple orchards without a single viable blossom, meaning they won't grow any fruit, said Brian Gilroy, head of the Ontario Apple Growers.

Others will see a significantly smaller yield _ at least 20 per cent less than usual _ making for a short supply of locally grown apples in stores this fall, he predicted.

"We'll do the best we can to get the consumer some apples this year but Mother Nature has made it extremely difficult," he said.

Unusual weather has ravaged apple-growing regions in the northeast United States and Quebec as well as Ontario, but growers in western regions such as Washington State have remained largely unscathed so far, Gilroy said.

That means struggling farmers are limited in how much they can raise prices to recoup their losses, he said.

Consumers will still likely see their grocery bills rise, he said.

"I would assume that prices will go up in light of the fact that supply of this part of North America is hurt so bad," and stores will need produce from out of the province to fill the void, he added.

In Ontario, the apple industry alone is worth up to $400 million, said agriculture specialist John Cline of the University of Guelph.

Roughly 2,800 people are employed in the province's apple orchards, including 2,300 foreign workers hired during the growing season.

Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin is set to tour a Niagara region orchard Thursday to evaluate the situation firsthand.

"While it's still too early to tell the impact of recent cold temperatures on some fruit crops, staff from my ministry are working with producers to assess the damage and develop management strategies," he said in a statement Wednesday.

A spokesman for the ministry said some growers are reporting second blooms, suggesting the impact may not be as dramatic as it initially appeared.

But others said the outlook is grim.

There are no blossoms on Steve Smith's apple trees in Port Elgin, about 40 kilometres southwest of Owen Sound.

"For the first time ever I don't think I'm going to have a single apple to pick out of 5,000 apple trees on my farm," Smith said. "So that's big."

Smith said he will have other products to sell at his pick-your-own operation, including vegetables and frozen apple pies, and he's hoping people will still visit farms this year.

But the farmer has had to cancel two Mexican workers in the fall and a teenage helper over the summer, and he's returning some fertilizer to his supplier.

"If a farmer makes $100,000 you just know he's going to spend at least 75 per cent of it in producing that crop," he said. "There's going to be quite a ramification here."

Cutting labour costs won't be enough to offset the loss of revenue, Gilroy said.

"There is certain inherent costs to maintaining an orchard, even if it's got just a marginal crop, even if it's got no crop," he said.

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