By Tom Collins
OSGOODE — Another poor growing season is leaving at least one apple grower wondering if it’s time to leave the industry.
The tough run of yields started in 2012 with one of the worst years for Ontario apple growers as they lost 80 per cent of yield due to drought. Things rebounded in 2013, but 2014 was too cold. A May frost in 2015 caused a 50 per cent yield loss, and another drought in 2016 caused smaller-than normal apples with higher-than-average yields. All these tough years — combined with too much rain during pollination — stressed out the trees enough so that 2017 yields were about 30 per cent less than 2016.
The last two years have seen mid-summer droughts. Throw in other weather events that can be more localized, such as long winters and hailstorms, and it’s been a tough go for apple growers.
Darryl Maloney of Log Cabin Orchard at Osgoode, south of Ottawa, grows 10 acres of apples. He says his apples this year are smaller than normal, and he has about 50 per cent less yield than last year’s average crop. He said last year’s drought made it tough for the trees to bud this year, and this year’s drought made it tough for those fewer buds to grow.
Normally his orchard is open to the public until the end of October, but he guessed that this year he was going to be picked clean by the end of September.
He has no production insurance and doesn’t irrigate. He is unsure if he wants to keep growing apples in the future. “We question it every day,” he said.
Charles Stevens, chair of Ontario Apple Growers, said across the province, it’s been a normal apple season. The group’s estimation is that yield will be about 10 per cent less than last year’s above-average yield.
Farmers need to make their own decisions on whether they choose to stay in the industry, he said. “It’s a risky business.”
Stevens said it costs more money to plant an acre of apple trees than it costs to buy the land. He said it costs around $25,000 to establish an acre of trees, but the trees won’t start producing enough apples to make a profit for about six or seven years. That cost doesn’t include irrigation or frost fans.
“You can’t make many mistakes,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure your risk management policy is in place. That means crop insurance, and all the government programs you can get a hold of, to protect you when Mother Nature doesn’t give you a good yield.”
Despite the hardships, Ontario’s apple acreage has remained consistent over the last six years. About 20 per cent of apple acreages are in Eastern and East-Central Ontario.
Some farmers have become accidental apple growers and are loving it. Josh Mackie and Emily Terziano purchased a property at Winchester in 2013 that included a McIntosh apple orchard that had been abandoned for more than a decade. Nothing was growing in the orchard, but the two decided to rehabilitate it by pruning, mowing and weeding. It took a couple of years, but eventually the 1,000 trees started producing apples again.
The two never grew up on a farm, and both have off-farm jobs: He owns an electrical contracting company while she works for the federal government. The apple farm recovered enough that the duo has started a pick-your-own business.
“We’ve definitely been flying by the seat of our pants, but happily so,” she said. “It’s become a passion project. It’s something that we really enjoy and really love, and we’re just lucky to have the opportunity to follow through with it.”
Terziano said this year’s drought has caused smaller apples, as the rain helps with size. However, there is a large quantity of apples. “The actual quantity of apples is absolutely astronomical,” she said. “We’ve been really blown away by it.”
Ups and downs of risky apples: One farmer loving it, another ponders quitting
By Tom Collins