Chris Berry’s apple crops went from the worst to the best in the span of a year.
The Harley, Ontario grower, who owns Fleetwood Farms with his wife Cheryl, said their apple crops only produced eight per cent of their usual yield last year.
But this year, his crops – including almost 30 varieties of apples – are producing more than they usually do.
Apple crops across the province were devastated last year because of poor weather conditions. With record-breaking temperatures in March and freezing nights in April, nearly 85 per cent of apple crops were lost, and some farmers weren’t able to harvest any apples.
Last year’s conditions translated into an approximate $60-million loss for Ontario farmers. According to the Ontario Apple Growers association, the provincial economy lost an estimated $350 to $400 million because not as many pickers were hired, and some workers used for packing were laid off.
Berry, who sells his fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets in Hamilton and Kitchener, said he had to send home all of his offshore pickers last year because there was no work for them. But this year, they’re back and working hard.
“It’ll take a long time to crawl back out of the hole, but we’ll get out of it,” Berry said, noting he expects it’ll take between three and five years for him to recover from last year’s devastation.
Like many small farms, Berry did not have crop insurance.
An acre of six or seven-year-old apple trees would typically produce hundreds of bins of apples, equating to a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for “little guys” like him because of last year’s poor crops, he said.
For “big guys”, the loss could be into the millions, he said.
Mark Cripps from the Ontario ministry of agriculture said getting crop insurance is a “business decision”.
“The government creates these programs because they want to recognize there’s an inherent risk in farming, and it’s important to maintain our food stability,” he said.
While Berry bought and sold what Ontario apples he could last year, he relied more on vegetables – potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers.
“We grew more of what we grow,” he said.
Despite not having many apples or other types of fruit, Berry made sure to stretch out his supplies at the farmers’ markets to keep people happy and to keep his stand.
That meant he had to pay to keep his coolers running to house the apples, keep his trucks insured, pay his market fees and continue employing his ten market employees.
He was able to stretch his apples out until March, but this year he expects he’ll have them right through to July or August when he’ll have already begun picking the new crops.
More apples province-wide
While growing conditions and weather are widely variable, it’s generally been a good year for growing apples, said Brian Gilroy, chair of the Ontario Apple Growers.
Based on a provincial crop estimate survey conducted by the association in July, this year’s crop yields are consistent with the historical average, if not a little better, Gilroy said.
“A lot of people have really nice crops,” he said, adding that because of the large amount of rain this year, apple size is larger than normal.
Gilroy, who owns Nighthawk Orchards in Meaford, said in the last two weeks, 300 bins of apples have been picked from his farm compared to fewer than 200 bins picked over last year’s entire season.
Cripps some growers are pressed to arrange labour, such as picking apples and packing them in bins, in a timely manner because of this year’s large crop.
But while some are experiencing the best crop they’ve ever grown, some farmers at the base of Lake Huron lost almost everything again this year due to a late frost.
Gilroy encourages Ontario apple lovers to ask for local produce at grocery stores if they don’t see them out because one of the challenges to overcoming last year’s crop devastation is reclaiming the shelf space needed to sell a large quantity of apples.
Having owned Fleetwood Farms since 1989, Berry said last year was a wake-up call for him because he’d never been through anything like it.
This year he made sure his pesticide program was “just right”, and his apple trees were thinned – removing excess fruit to improve quality and size.
“You don’t know what it’s like to have nothing until you have nothing,” he said.
While Berry said he can’t be sure how his crops will keep at this point, the quality of his apples is excellent so far.
“We knew we were going to have a monster crop this year – it’s just whether we could get the quality,” he said.
Calling on government to assist with recovery
The Canadian government offers disaster relief to farmers on a federal, provincial or territorial level, assessing the devastation on a case-by-case basis through AgriRecovery.
Gilroy said Ontario apple growers didn’t qualify for this assistance last year, but farmers are only getting a firm handle on their 2012 finances now.
“We’ve asked that it be looked at again because it’s our feeling that the sector should and will qualify for AgriRecovery still,” he said.
Cripps said AgriRecovery is meant for disaster relief, and there were still some apple crops left throughout Ontario last year.