Knowing temperatures were expected to drop below freezing on his namesake 120-acre farm in St. Joseph, Michigan, Mick Klug set an alarm for himself on the night of April 27. It went off at midnight. That’s when he made the five-mile trek from his home to his strawberry patch to turn on an irrigation system, which protects against frost by coating the berries with a thin layer of ice. Meanwhile, his fruit trees—whose limbs would be harmed by the irrigation system—had to go unprotected.
The unseasonably chilly temperatures during the last few nights of April would not have been cause for alarm in seasons past, but this year was different: A string of record-high 80-degree days in March had pushed many of the buds so far into bloom that when temperatures dipped to 27 degrees at 4am, more than half of Klug’s peaches, apples, nectarines, cherries and apricots were devastated.
“If [the freeze] hadn’t have happened that night, we probably would’ve had the best crop ever,” says Klug, who sells at farmers’ markets and to about 40 Chicago restaurants. “The earliest and the best.”
About 30 miles north, in South Haven, Michigan, Peter Klein of Seedling Orchard also faced the worst crop damage he’d seen since buying the 81-acre plot almost ten years ago. With pears left on just one of his trees and apricots and cherries virtually nonexistent after the frost, Klein guesses he’ll be able to harvest only 25 percent of his fruit crops this year. As for the cider he presses and sells to restaurants and stores such as Costco, he’s canceled most of the orders. “At this point I don’t think we’ll open the cider mill,” he says. “We won’t have enough apples to juice.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” says [node:149615 link=Sepia;]’s pastry chef, Cindy Schuman, who learned about the crop freeze when she contacted Klein to order fruit from Seedling in early May. Knowing that local produce would be scant this year, Schuman tweaked her dessert menu, substituting pickled plums for fresh ones in her ginger parfait.
But for some desserts, Schuman is unwilling to compromise on fresh fruit. “There’s a saying that if you don’t start with a good piece of fruit, no matter what you do with it, you’re not going to have a good product,” she says. “Even if it’s not a locally grown plum or peach…I’d much rather have a delicious peach from California than a sad one from the Midwest.”
Still, [node:150129 link=Nightwood;]’s Mathew Rice prefers to do without peaches altogether than source them from Georgia, where they’d have to be picked long before arriving in Chicago. Instead, the pastry chef intends to use strawberries for as long as he can, like in his housemade ice cream, which he’ll freeze and use throughout the summer.
With Klug raising the price of peaches by $1 a quart, Rice says he’ll maintain his own prices by serving a smaller amount of peaches, in a pudding, for example, and saving the more plentiful fruit—like rhubarb or berries—for larger pastries like buckles.
Prices likely won’t go up for farms that don’t rely so heavily on harvesting fruit crops. Sixty miles northwest of Chicago, Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Illinois, grows about a thousand varieties of fruits and vegetables, so even though it’ll harvest only 10 percent of its apple crop, “there’s room on the truck for more greens and other vegetables,” says Lloyd Nichols, who bought the farm in 1977 and expanded it from ten acres to more than 400.
Teresa Brockman, of Sunny Lane Aronia Farm in Eureka, Illinois, says the frost has been a lesson in diversifying. She’s yielded far less than half of her normal berry harvest—never mind that her trees are completely devoid of fruit—but she’s able to fall back on selling flowers, plants and 40 types of dried herbs at the Evanston farmers’ market. “It’s going to be a lean year, and I may have to dip into my savings some, but still, that’s something that happens in farming,” she says.
Expecting—and making do—with the unexpected has become an all-too-familiar mind-set for regional farmers. “The business is really going to suffer, but there’s not much else I can do,” Klein says. “There’s some insurance money coming in soon, and hopefully it will get us through to next season.”
Klug insists that staying optimistic is necessary for those who work in agriculture but, even so, he continues to closely monitor the weather in case a freak freeze comes along that he’ll have to set his alarm for. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he admits. “But you never know.”