This year’s apple crop in the United States has been negatively impacted by unusual weather patterns caused by climate change. Hot temperatures in the spring led to poor pollination, while summer droughts and hail storms further damaged many orchards. As a result, the 2022 apple harvest is expected to be down by nearly 20% compared to previous years.
This lousy apple season illustrates the challenges fruit growers are facing from climate change. Warming temperatures and extreme weather events are disrupting traditional growing patterns. For example, spring heat waves can kill blossoms before pollination occurs. Drought limits water availability during the summer. Hail and high winds from storms damage trees and knock developing fruit off branches.
In response, apple growers are being forced to adapt their practices. Some are installing overhead irrigation systems to better cope with drought. Others are planting varieties that blossom later in spring to avoid heat waves. Retrofitting orchards with protective netting helps prevent hail damage. However, these adaptive measures come at a high cost for growers.
Climate change is also shifting where apples can be grown. Traditional apple-growing regions like Washington and New York are becoming less ideal as warmer winters allow more insect pests to survive year-round. Meanwhile, states like Michigan and Wisconsin are seeing longer frost-free growing seasons that enable expansion of their orchards.
But shifting apple production to new regions brings risks, too. Growers may need more experience with new climate conditions and pests. Extensive orchards represent long-term investments, so transitioning to new areas takes a lot of work. Many heirloom apple varieties are finely tuned to specific climates.
To develop new apple varieties suited for a warming world, breeders are cross-pollinating traditional apples with southern heirlooms that possess heat and drought tolerance. However, breeding apples is challenging because of their long juvenile phase. It can take over a decade to develop a new commercial variety.
In the meantime, apple growers face difficult decisions balancing short-term costs versus long-term sustainability. For small family orchards, expensive infrastructure upgrades may be impossible. Some growers worry climate change could ultimately make apple production unviable in certain regions. However, the apple industry remains optimistic that with sufficient innovation and adaptation, it can continue thriving in a warmer world.
This season’s apple crop difficulties highlight the broader agricultural challenges posed by climate change. From fruits to vegetables to grains, more extreme weather is impacting growers worldwide. To secure the global food supply, increased efforts are needed to help farmers adapt through new technologies, practices, and public policies. The lousy apple harvest of 2022 provides a warning that action must be taken now to protect the orchard crops of the future.