Vineyards, orchards still struggling from polar vortex

More than 15 months after the Miami Valley endured a frigid polar vortex, local vineyard and orchard owners are still coping with the impact the historic cold snap.

Winery owners who have young vines in their west-central and southwest Ohio vineyards were hardest-hit, with many facing the continuing loss of vines as well as a reduced crop from damaged vines that remain. And some local orchard owners have been forced this year to replace a portion of their peach trees, which are more susceptible to bitter cold than most other fruit trees.

Overall, however, orchard owners are upbeat about the prospects for this year, even as they are still assessing potential frost damage from the chilly temperatures of late last week.

Imed Dami, associate professor and state viticulturist with the Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, said the polar vortex of January 2014 inflicted what is believed to be the worst grape damage on record in Ohio. Dami led a survey of grape growers last year following the polar vortex, which sent temperatures plummeting to as low at -27 degrees in some Ohio vineyards. In the Dayton area, wind chills reached -40 degrees, and on Jan. 6, the temperature remained below zero for 28 consecutive hours.

Temperatures that cold can, at the very least, destroy a grapevine’s buds that would have produced grapes for the coming year’s crop. And the grape varietals that are most susceptible to damage from frigid temperatures are those “vinifera” varieties of European heritage that are the most well-known to, and popular with, wine drinkers, such as chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling.

Arctic temperatures can damage a grapevine’s trunk to the extent that the entire vine must be replaced or re-grafted — an especially costly act for vineyard owners, since newly planted vines don’t produce a usable crop for three to five years. In vines that suffer less serious damage, workers must re-train the shoots or re-graft the injured vine, which can limit grape crops for at least a year or two.

Dami estimated Ohio wineries lost 20 percent to 30 percent of their vines outright to the polar vortex and its aftermath, but also cautioned that vines injured but not killed by the initial blast of cold are more susceptible to other vine diseases such as crown gall, a bacterial disease that can further weaken, and eventually render useless, damaged vines.

Infection hurting vineyards

Some local winery owners say the crown gall bacterial infection is causing problems in their vineyards.

Walter Borda, owner of Caesar Creek Vineyards in New Jasper Twp. east of Xenia in Greene County, said his Seyval Blanc vineyard suffered a 20 percent mortality rate last year, “but I would not be surprised if it is as high or higher this year because the plants have become so weakened over the past two years. The crown gall is finally getting them.”

Caesar Creek is fighting back by ordering and planning to plant about 1,000 new vines of at least four grape varieties, Borda said.

The polar vortex damaged about 40 percent of the vineyards at Old Mason Winery near West Milton in Miami County and forced owners to replant more than 1,000 grapevines this spring, according to Donna Clark, Old Mason’s co-owner.

And Louisa Kennedy, co-owner of Kennedy Vineyard near New Madison in Darke County, said she has seen young vines that survived the initial blast backsliding in their ability to produce a usable crop, in part because of the bacterial disease that has affected as many as 60 percent of her vines.

“Most of these plants will have to be torn out if they do not produce this year” after attempts to graft shoots to the plant last summer, Kennedy said.

“We plant cold-hardy grapes here for the Midwest winters, but when the winters are as extreme as they have been the last two years, even those vines have trouble withstanding the temperatures,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s fruit orchards also were impacted by the harsh 2014 winter. Last year, “We did not get apples or pears from trees that have produced beautiful fruit for years,” Kennedy said. “This year we hope to again have pears and apples, but I won’t know the extent of the damage from last winter until we see this year’s crop formation.”

Peach trees suffer heaving damage

Orchard owners throughout the region suffered heavy losses of their 2014 crop, but those who grow peaches were most severely impacted, because peach trees are more prone to damage than other fruit trees commonly grown in Ohio.

Glenn Monnin, co-owner of Monnin Fruit Farm in Butler Twp., Montgomery County, said the polar vortex killed, or so seriously harmed, about 15-20 percent of his orchard’s peach trees that they must be replaced.

“Peaches are pretty important to us, because they generate a substantial amount of money,” Monnin said. “We planted 50 peach trees this past week to replace the ones we lost,” although those new trees won’t produce a usable crop for three to five years, much like a new grapevine.

Bill Todd, president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Marketing Association, said statewide, orchard owners’ peach, nectarine and cherry trees suffered damage last year.

“And there is some concern that some trees that were weakened last winter didn’t make it through this winter,” Todd said.

This year’s growing season is about a week behind on average, Todd said. But that’s actually reassuring to orchard owners, whose spring nightmare scenarios usually focus on the risk of an early warm-up that accelerates flowering and fruit set, followed by a hard freeze that can wipe out most or all of an annual crop.

Making a rebound

Tukens Farm Market & Orchard in western Montgomery County near West Alexandria lost some trees to the harsh winter, but the surviving trees have rebounded nicely this spring, with early indications of a strong apple crop and good cherry and plum crops, according to Mary Hora, who owns the orchard with her husband Frank.

Bob Ullrich, owner of Hidden Valley Fruit Farm in Clearcreek Twp. in Warren County, said his apple, cherry and peach trees look promising so far. Ullrich said this year’s growing season started with a “good winter” that brought temperatures low enough to kill mites, spiders and other pests in the trees, but not so cold as to do any additional damage to trees and plants.

“We were pretty lucky this past winter, and our orchards are really looking good,” Ullrich said.

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