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Southwest Michigan grape growers hoping to avoid another crop disaster

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. – Hildebrand Fruit Farms has lost an estimated 25 percent of its grape crop, due to freezing temperatures this past weekend.

The farms Concord and Niagara grapes are budding a month ahead of schedule because of a week and a half of record setting heat in March.

The grapes, which are used to make Welch’s products, normally yield 8 tons per acre, but that is not likely to happen this year.

Mike Hildebrand showed off some of the damaged buds and explained the situation his farm is facing Tuesday evening as several more days of cold temperatures have been forecasted.

Hildebrand acknowledged, there was little he could do but hope and pray his crop would survive.

It is too early in the season to begin irrigating to try and protect the buds from frost with a thin layer of ice, according to Hildebrand.

The problem is not the state of the buds, it is the amount it would cost to do the job adequately.

The weather is the root of the problem, according to Hildebrand, but not the current weather.

This is normal weather for April and grape growers typically don’t have to worry about frosts at this time because their grapes should not have budded yet.

But things like this happen, and when they do there can be devastating consequences.

In 2002 several 80 degree days prompted grapes all over the region to bloom.

But a sudden dramatic drop in temperature nearly wiped them all out. “It nuked every single bud in the whole area. I mean from Paw Paw to Baroda, to Niles, to St. Joe; there were no grapes,” said Hildebrand.

This year’s troubles may be different, but Hildebrand is just as concerned.

He likens it to chopping away at the crop, one chunk at a time. “The end result may be the same as 2002; it just may take longer,” said Hildebrand.

Still, Hildebrand is being careful about the message he wants to send. “There isn’t a disaster, yet. We’re teetering right at that point,” said Hildebrand.

Even the farm’s other crops, apples and peaches, have suffered damage from the frost.

Hildebrand estimates 3 out of 10 apple blossoms have survived, and he has concerns about the pollination levels in the peaches because their bees did not arrive in time.

And he isn’t the only grower experiencing these problems. Hildebrand reported devastating losses to the cherry crop near Traverse City, Michigan and to the local asparagus crop as well.

Hildebrand is also concerned about the national grape crop.

The majority of grapes used for juices, jams, preserves and jellies come from Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington state, according to Hildebrand; and all of them except Washington have had the same abnormal weather this year.

But for now all he can do is pray, said Hildebrand; the growing season is far from over and while frost will continue to be a danger up until about May 20, there are many other things that could go wrong between now and harvesting that would ruin the rest of his crop.

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