Chuck and Dianne Southers’ apple orchard spans approximately 30 hilly acres in Concord, New Hampshire. Most of his apple crop was destroyed due to severe cold in May.
CONCORD, NH – Chuck and Dianne Southers’ thermal alarm went off around 10:30 p.m. on a fateful night in mid-May.
The alarm regulates the temperature in their 30-acre garden and sounds loudly if it drops too low. That Thursday night in Concord, New Hampshire, the temperature was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature kept getting colder.
Southers’ apple orchard was in full bloom, which is typical for mid-May. This year was especially good.
“We called it the Popcorn Bloom,” said Dianne Souther. “The tree was absolutely white with flowers.”
By Friday morning all the petals were turning brown. Southerners cut small apples the size of a pencil eraser. Their juices congealed, spread and, in the process, cells and seeds were destroyed.
“No seeds, no apples,” said Chuck Souther, standing amid rows of leafy green trees. The Southers first planted their apple orchard in 1978, shortly after purchasing a neglected piece of land in the capital of New Hampshire. Even before building his house, he planted his first tree. This year, the branches become free of fruits and reach into the air.
Apple picking at places like Southers Farm, known as Apple Hill, is one of New England’s quintessential fall traditions. But a good harvest depends on things that happened months earlier. This year, there is no fruit on many New Hampshire trees because of that cold night in May.
Fruit growers like Southers are watching human-caused climate change alter the seasonal patterns they have relied on for years for fruit production. As the climate gets warmer and weather becomes more unpredictable, some farmers are considering major changes, such as planting different crops or finding new ways to protect trees from the elements.
Chuck and Dianne Souther planted their apple orchard in 1978. People come to Souther’s farm, called Apple Hill, every fall to pick apples.
In New Hampshire, farms at higher elevations performed better than farms at lower elevations, such as Southerners. Jeffrey Holmes, director of the state Farm Service Agency, said this year was unprecedented. Hundreds of acres of crops froze during two major cold waves: first peaches in February, and then apples in May.
Chuck Souther said he sees changing weather conditions for his farm and others. He is hesitant to talk about causes like climate change, but said the weather is less predictable than before.
“You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out things are different right now,” he said.
Jason Londo, professor of horticulture at Cornell University, agrees. Things are different.
“We’re changing the stability of all our seasons,” he said.
Londo studies how fruit crops are adapting to human-driven climate change. Not every damaging event — like a freeze in May — is a sign of a changing climate, he said. The temperatures to which apple trees have adapted for thousands of years are changing as people continue to burn fossil fuels which causes global warming.
Some apples from Southerners survived the late spring cold, but they are harvested with rough skin.
Fruits require a certain number of hours each winter to remain cool and dormant. Then, when it’s warm outside, the trees wake up and get ready to bloom. Fall, winter and spring are all getting warmer.
“Climate change is impacting how our fruit crops sense the safest time to wake up in the spring,” Londo said. “As they wake up earlier and earlier, but the risk of an intense cold event does not decrease, they become more and more exposed to these types of events.”
There is also growing research into how climate change could make cold snaps more unpredictable.
Farmers across the country are struggling with these changes. January and February were extremely warm in Georgia this year – near the top of historical records. The peaches bloomed early. Then in March, two frosts destroyed nearly all of the state’s commercial peaches. In Virginia, early blooming apples also suffer damage during cold weather in March and April.
Fruit growers looking for solutions
Growers and scientists are trying a few different things to adapt as climate change continues to threaten future crops, said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia.
“One is to try different varieties of the same crop they’re growing,” Knox said. “So you can grow an apple that has fewer chill hours than the last apple you grew.”
In Washington state, scientists have developed a spray made from cellulose from wood pulp to help preserve fruit. In Georgia, some farmers are growing citrus fruits or olives, Knox said.
This fall in New Hampshire, the Southers are relying on sales from their farm stand, offering items like zucchini bread, homemade jelly, and this year, apples they’ve purchased from other farms. They’re also focusing on other fruits and vegetables they grow – raspberries and blueberries did quite well this year. And they’re booking events like cider tasting on their land.
But looking to the future, Chuck said he and Diane are thinking about backup plans.
“It would be really nice if we could just say, ‘Oh, this is what we’re going to be talking about and our grandchildren are going to be talking about in, you know, 2023, remember? ‘ But we don’t know that,” he said.
For now, Chuck said he’s optimistic about next year’s apples, but Apple Hill’s next farmers may grow different crops.