Fruit growers in eastern Iowa are waiting anxiously to see what the weather holds. The record-breaking March temperatures and threat of freezing temperatures have left the outcome of crops uncertain.

Unusually warm weather has sped up the growing process, leaving fruit, like apples and grapes, about a month ahead of schedule. Local businesses like Gravert’s Apple Orchard and Wide River Winery are patiently waiting to see how their business will be affected.

“Usually we are still pruning this time of year, but the trees are already blooming now,” Laura Larabee, co-owner of Gravert’s Apple Orchard, said.

All varieties of apples are expected to two weeks up to a month ahead of schedule. Normally apples go through a three week period from dormancy.

This year it only took one week, according to Larabee.

This means early varieties like Wealthy, Gravenstein, Zestar and Gala could be ripe as early as late July. The lack of cold weather throughout the winter has also had a strong impact on the apples, according to Larabee.

“Apples require a certain amount of chill hours to form blossoms,” Larabee said. “At a Fruit Growers Association meeting in January, there was concern that there would not be enough cold weather to form blossoms.”

With the apples blossoming and extra vulnerable, the possibility of freeze remains daunting. While the weather seems to be staying warm, there is still plenty of time for a freeze. The last freeze date is May 15, but it could be as early as May 1 with the unusual weather.

“Fortunately apples can stand some frost, but if it reaches 28 degrees we will start to lose apples,” Larabee said. “If it hits 26 degrees the whole bunch will be lost.”

While the orchard will have to open earlier with the early ripening, the bigger concern is how the early ripening will affect the taste of the apples.

“Summer apples don’t taste as good,” Larabee said. “The apples need colder weather to build up taste.”

Residents can check Gravert’s website at gravertorchard.com and call Gravert’s hotline at (563) 687-2298 to find out when their favorite varieties are available, especially with the unique apple season this year.

“Honey Crisp are a favorite for many of our customers,” Larabee said. “They are usually available at Labor Day, but this year they could be gone by then.”

The vineyard at Wide River Winery has also expected an early ripening.

“The vines leafed out way ahead of schedule,” owner Dorothy O’Brien said.

O’Brien is not too concerned about losing all of her grapes, since the weather would have to drop into the low 20s for that to occur. If temperatures drop to 28 degrees, some of the grapes will be lost, but many can be saved by spraying them with a combination of orange peel oil and copper sulfide.

“The temperatures would have to get very cold to lose all the grapes,” O’Brien said. “It’s more likely that if we get a freeze the yields will be lower and it might not be a great grape season.”

Wide River Winery sold about 60,000 bottles of wine last year. In addition to the vineyard, the business also buys grapes from local growers from Geneseo, Ill., Sterling, Ill., and Goose Lake.              

The future of fruit in the area is still uncertain, so growers can only hope for the best and be prepared for the worst. The lowest temp predicted within the freeze time period is 32 degrees.

“Every year is different,” Larabee said. “But this year it will be an unbelievably early ripening. Nobody has seen anything quite like this before. All we can do is wait and see what happens.”

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