Farmer Q&A: Ben Wenk of Three Springs

If you've noticed that there are a few less bushels of peaches and other stone fruits at your local farmers' market this summer, you can blame it on the erratic weather patterns of early 2016. We chatted with fruit farmer Ben Wenk of Three Springs (Adams County, PA) to learn more about how his crops were affected. [This interview has been edited for length. All photos are courtesy of Three Springs Fruit Farm]

Ben Wenk
Ben Wenk

Ben Wenk with apple trees at Three Springs Fruit Farm, spring 2016

Fair Food: How did last winter’s weather affect your orchard, generally speaking?

Ben Wenk: We suffered a lot of bud and blossom mortality caused by the weather warming up and cooling down and warming up and cooling down in winter and spring. The real blow was when the temperature dropped to 19 degrees Fahrenheit on the morning of April 9th, which is way late to have that cold, and that resulted in a lot of crop loss, mostly in our stone fruits—peaches, early plums, apricots, and cherries. The blossom/bud mortality was everywhere from 99 percent to 50 percent in some cases. Even on our apple trees, we lost about 20 percent of the blossoms. Large acreages of our farm went on without any fruit at all.

FF: So how did that impact your business?

BW: Two things happened: The first thing is that we lost a portion of our crop. In the case of early plums, most of our sour cherries, and our apricots, it resulted in something really close to a crop loss. We counted the apricots we had in individual fruits instead of crates, and came up with maybe 100 on all of our trees. We had about a three-quarter-size crop on only two of our twenty-four acres of sour cherries, and the birds came in and cleaned a bunch of them up, resulting in a pretty much 100-percent loss of sour cherries.

When we discovered that we didn’t have a 100-percent crop failure, it then became a management problem. Typically we like to do a lot of our crop thinning in a two ways. First we use a blossom thinner—which is like a big giant weed whacker that we run over the top of the peach trees when they’re in bloom and that indiscriminately takes off about half of the blossoms off. [Click here to see a video of the blossom thinner in action] And then we’ll come through right after that and take a bunch of the blossoms off by hand. The reason we like this process is that it doesn’t take a whole lot of time, and you’re removing those blossoms before they even expend the energy to grow them into tiny little fruits. But when we had all those damaged blossoms this year, we certainly couldn’t go through and just knock half of them off in the quickest and most efficient way. We had to wait and see. We cut some blossoms open to figure out how many were dead so we could start strategizing what we were going to do for management level next. And then we decided to just let it roll. We didn’t have enough to blossom thin, so we thought we’d just wait and see what fruit we actually start putting on the trees.

When the remaining blossoms set, we saw that the very ends of the blossoms were where we had most of our blossom mortality. There weren’t a whole lot of peaches at the ends of the trees, which is typically where the best quality fruits grow, but we did have a lot of blossoms on the insides of the trees, so we decided that we still needed to thin. (If you want to grow a three-inch peach, you have to have space about six inches away from each other so they can grow to their maximum size without them touching each other.) By this point we were way behind in our peach thinning, but we made up for a little time because we didn’t have any cherries to pick. (From a management perspective it was kind of a break, but certainly we would much rather have a cherry crop.)

So there we were, trying to get all of our annual vegetables planted, get all of our trees planted, and we still had so much work to do in thinning the peaches and now the apples, too, because we started so late.

peaches
peaches

FF: Why is crop thinning so important?

BW: In the case of peaches, for every 100 blossoms that the tree puts out, we really only want to put fruit on about 50 percent. A couple reasons for that: Number one, it affects the quality of the fruit—if you have too many growing on the tree, you end up with a bunch of small, flavorless, unappetizing peaches, apricots, apples, and other fruits of that kind. Number two, it affects the following year’s crop. If you have a huge crop of apples one year, it’ll affect the tree’s ability to grow another good crop the following year, resulting in biennial crops. Very few fruit trees are naturally conditioned to have a nice crop every single year. So we have to thin out their blossoms to keep them producing consistently.

FF: What do you think helped your crops survive the late frost?

BW: There are two things that I think contributed to Adams County having crops on peaches where others might not have. One is one of the things that have always made Adams County an ideal place to grow tree fruit—we have a lot of rolling hillside. Generally speaking, the fruit belt, as it’s called in Adams County, is on the south slopes of the south mountains and runs in a band from the southwestern to the northeastern part of Adams County. And those hillsides offer a lot of air drainage, which is really important when you’re growing tree fruit.

Everyone’s familiar with hot hair rises, right? Well cold air sinks in the same way. So whenever we have these cold weather events, the cold air is going to go to the lowest point—the bottom—and that’s going to start filling up like a vessel or like a jar. So with this in mind, we don’t plant in the creek bottoms, we plant back up the hill a little bit and leave a space where that cold air can sink and settle. A lot of times these hillsides have bailed us out from major crop loss, and I think that was the case again this year.

A second contributing factor was that multiple cold events can condition the buds to defend themselves against more cold. Plants are actually pretty intelligent and fascinating to work with every day. When the trees get that jolt of cold air, they can work in their best interests and assign additional nutrients to those buds when they find that they’re being endangered by extreme weather events. Twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit is the critical temperature for blossoms—the prevailing wisdom is for every hour under 28 degrees, we’ll lose 10 percent of the blossoms that are open. And there would have been two separate occasions where, if that were the case, we would have lost 100 percent of our crop. But the multiple cold events allowed the trees to prepare a little bit to defend themselves against the cold, and I don’t know how to quantify it, but that definitely played a role in protecting this year’s crop.

apple blossoms
apple blossoms

FF: Wow! You don’t usually think about plants as possessing intelligence . . .

BW: We’re only now starting to learn how brilliant and thrifty plants are. There are studies out there that say that when insects start to feed on plants, plants can actually release a volatile compound that attracts other insects that will eat the pests that are killing the plants.

And we learned another lesson about plant intelligence from our apple trees this year. Apples bloom in fives, and the center blossom (called the king bloom) is always the best, biggest, and the first to come out. This year, on a lot of our apple trees, the king blooms were far enough ahead that they got zapped by the frost, but the four remaining blooms (which we call axillary or ancillary blooms) survived. On some apple trees, we’ve noticed that when the king bloom dies, it’s almost like someone has to carry the flag. In some cases, one of those four auxiliary or axillary blooms took the lead and grew larger than the other ones, which ended up working out well. And we didn’t know they could do that, because it’s been a while since we’ve had a nasty season for apples.

It was a common discussion among my colleagues in the fruit growing industry: “Well we’re going to learn a lot this year—it’s gonna be a weird one.” And we have, and it’s important when you’re dealt a bad hand to have something to learn as a result.

FF: Do you think your trees will be more or less back to normal for next year?

BW: That totally depends on the winter and spring. More than likely we’ll go into next year with a very good shot of having a solid crop. Again, sometimes when you leave too many apples on the tree the year before, you might not get as many blossoms the following year and the crop could go biennial. If we don’t get around to doing all the hand thinning on the apple trees, potentially that could leave us in a situation where we don’t have as many blossoms in the 2017 apple crop. That’s a real concern, but it’s relative to not having a crop of anything, which is something that other regions have dealt with more recently.

FF: Will you be doing anything different to prepare for winter this year that you didn’t do last year?

BW: Not really. It’s one of those things where we really are at the mercy of our environment. However, there are a couple things you can do when you start having cold weather come through. When you know it’s going to go below 28 degrees, one of the most common things is to go out and light a bunch of little fires. That probably does help, but our idea is that a lot of times you’re only doing that so you feel like you have a sense of control over the situation, even though you really don’t. There’s plenty of examples of people who go through all that effort and work and still lose their crop anyhow because it just got too cold or the fires weren’t big enough. Generally speaking, we haven’t gone to those lengths in doing frost prevention because there’s no expectation that it’ll work, and for the most part we feel like it’s out of our hands. So we stick to the things we know we can control and see where that leaves us, and then we do the best with what we have. That’s our approach.

FF: It’s amazing that you’ve been able to salvage the crops that you have. I’ve been reading about farmers who have really been struggling this year in regions throughout the country. Have you been getting more business as a result?

BW: About three years ago when a lot of farms lost their apple crops, we got cold calls from people out in the Midwest trying to buy apples and peaches from us, and all of a sudden we started seeing lots of used equipment out on the market because farms are having to liquidate assets to stay in business. It makes you sick to your stomach because it could have just as easily been you. In those situations, we don’t generally take on any new business from out of town because we want to make sure that we’re staying loyal to the folks who help us out when we have a monster crop and have to sell a whole bunch at once. Those people are way more important than those who just show up on our front door when we’re the only game in town. Right now I’m getting calls about peaches from areas north of us. All together we probably lost about 10 or 15 percent of our peach crop, but compared to other people who lost all their peaches, I’m in no mood to complain about our situation. As a result, I’ve been getting all these calls from New York and other states, but we’ve got our own customers to take care of first, so I don’t anticipate taking on any of that new business right now.