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Local apple farmers sitting on edge

ALPINE TOWNSHIP (WZZM) - This unusually warm weather, and now the possibility of a freeze, has local farmers sitting on edge.

An MSU horticulturist and apple farmer says he finds himself in a very risky situation.

Phil Schwallier's apple blossoms are blooming four weeks ahead of schedule.  Some of his buds are at open cluster stage already, and can only take an hour or so at 28 degrees. The closer they get to bloom, the more susceptible they get to colder temperatures.

If there's one thing farmers love to talk about it, it's the weather.  But Schwallier and his sprayer Earl Reister haven''t been around long enough to ever talk 70 and 80 degrees in March.

"There was a season like this in 1945, that the old timers will tell us about," said Schwallier.

"That was before I was I was born, and I'm 63-years-old," said Reister.

"But even this year is more advanced than 1945," added Schwallier.

The apples are blooming four weeks ahead of schedule.

"I know there will be more insects this year, because it's been a mild winter."

That means Reister has to spend an extra month spraying. This alone will cost the farm an extra $25,000 this year. But Schwallier has much more at stake. He needs two more months of these warm temperatures to grow his crop.

"You get to a certain stage in that bud development, and it gets down to 27 degrees, you're not going to have a crop of fruit," he said.

Just one night of frost, make that 15 minutes in the mid 20's, could damage 20 percent of his crop.

"If it's cold for 1,2,3,4 hours at that temperature, we can have 90 percent loss of the flower buds," he said.

An early frost could also cause a slight price hike come fall.

But let's look on the sunny side. If it doesn't frost over, his buds will bloom four weeks early, farmers can harvest four weeks early, and you'll have to change your apple picking traditions. 

"They will come out in September and say 'where is the Gala's and Honeycrisps,' and we'll say, 'We picked them in August.'"

So with two months left before Schwallier would be in the clear, what's the possbility of a freeze?

WZZM 13 Meteorologist Aaron Ofseyer says temperatures could fall to 28 degrees Tuesday morning.

The average day for the last freeze isn't for at least month. If you look back at the last few years, we've always had at least one day in April at 29 degrees or below.

One example telling of how fast things can change.

On April 10, 2010, the temperature dropped from 71 degrees during the day to 29 degrees at night.