The future of the apple? Not so bright

Will climate change ruin the future of apples in the US?

With a huge crop failure last year and climate change changing the essence of the apple, is one of America's favorite fruits doomed or blessed?

After last year's "Applegeddon," which resulted in a major loss of crops for parts of the Northeast and Midwest, and climate-change doomsayers predicting the end of the apple as we know it, what really is in store for one of America's favorite fruits?

If we are talking about the near future, like this season, apples across the country are expected to be in abundance. In fact, the rested trees deprived of a crop last year are on overdrive this season, with an expected delivery of 20 million bushels above average. This season should be stellar for everything from Pink Ladies and Pippins to Jonagolds and Jonathans, as well as Fujis, Romes, McIntoshes and Idareds.

But the long view of apple production isn't so rosy. A warming climate could actually ruin the crisp, sweet apple flavor we have all come to know. Most varieties of apples require a "winter chill" time of 500 to 1,000 hours at below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive.

Related: Climate change is even ruining apples

According to a study published in the journal PlosOne, the number of hours of winter chill that many varieties of apples (and other stone fruits such as peaches, apricots, cherries, plums and many nuts) require to both flower and set fruit will continue to decrease over time, affecting not just the U.S., but also world production. And if spring weather begins earlier and earlier, with unpredictable freezes interspersed, trees will bloom far earlier, also. Tender crops won't withstand the freezes.

"Many species are only marginally suited to where they are grown, and even small changes in temperature patterns can be a problem," climate scientist Evan Girvetz told The Nature Conservancy. "Rising temperatures caused by climate change may reduce winter chill enough to cause serious problems for fruit and nut tree yields, especially those grown in the warmer growing regions, such as in California, Chile, the Middle East, China, Africa and Australia."

Is there any good news on the apple front? Yes, says Drusilla Banks, the Extension Educator in Nutrition and Wellness at the University of Illinois, and co-author of its Apples and More website. We are living in a good time to experience a huge variety of apples (8,000-plus worldwide), not simply stuck with the Red and Golden Delicious (truly the antithesis of their names) orbs of yore that ship best to market, Banks says.

"Now the trend is we see heirloom apples available in smaller markets, and in places like Whole Foods," Banks notes. "Consumers have access to apples that are grown in smaller orchards, often sourced locally, and these fresh apples are incredible. They now know what a good apple is, with lots of flavor." Banks extolls the virtues of the not-so-pretty Pippin, which explodes with flavor in the first bite.

Farmers across the country are beginning to investigate planting other cultivars like those grown in California that require lower chill hours of 300 or fewer — apples with plenty of punch like Beverly Hills, Gordon, Pink Lady, Tropical Beauty, Anna, Dorsett Golden, and Ein Shemer. Although scientists and farmers have discussed the possibility of moving orchards further north to access continued colder winters, the idea is not feasible for many reasons: access to appropriate soil balance, water and space, to name a few.

With so many more varieties to choose from (100 varieties are grown commercially in 36 U.S. states), and smaller orchards providing to consumers' appreciative appetites, it seems at least for now, ciders, applesauce and snacks will be safely delivered to farmers markets and grocery stores nationwide.


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