El Niño could spell trouble for Michigan fruit farmers

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SPARTA, Mich. -- Michigan is known for its apples, cherries, peaches and plums. All of those trees depend on a long, cold winter.

The forecast is different this year. It's an El Niño year.

“A lot of people may be thinking about our March 2012 when it was extremely warm. We had a lot of days that were well over 80 degrees," reminds National Weather Service Meteorologist T.J. Turnage. "There was early crop growth and damage as a result.  At this point, we are not seeing anything like that.

West Michigan is not going to see a March like 2012. Fruit tree farmers need the average temperature, a combination of overnight lows and daytime highs, to be around 40.

“March is always a tough month, because there’s a lot of swings with it. But it looks like we’ll be seeing average temperatures in the 40s which is near two degrees above normal for that time of year," Turnage forecasts.

Two degrees is critical for farmers.

“We’re not too nervous at this point," says Philip Schwallier, Michigan State University district agent for tree fruit.  "It depends on what happens over the next 30 days. If it gets to 60 and stays there, we’d probably have an early year.”

An early year is what keeps farmers up at night. It means their plants could bud early and be destroyed by frost. If it were up to them, they'd want winter to last for a little while longer.

Schwallier explains that April 15 is a good goal for farmers, but things usually start changing around April 1.

The reality with all fruit trees is that they all start with more buds than they need. For now, Schwallier says there's plenty of buds; buds that will flower and become fruit.  If they lose a few to frost, it will not be a big deal.

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