This Year, Wisconsin Apple Growers Are Feeling the Squeeze

A truck trailer with bins of apples is parked in an orchard

Like so many of us, apple trees are stressed this year too. In July, apple producers warned of a “Honeycrisp crisis” as trees bore little to no fruit during the growing season. Honeycrisp apples are notoriously difficult to grow (which is why they tend to cost more), but these early warnings foretold the widespread challenges across varietals that apple growers would face this season. Early this fall, many orchards limited or cancelled their U-pick options, and apple prices climbed as growers across the state reported crop levels anywhere from 50 percent of normal yield to zero apples. With one of Wisconsin’s quintessential autumn activities put on hold this year, consumers are left wondering: what happened to the apples?

Apple growers around the state are facing one of Wisconsin’s worst harvests in years. The most immediate culprit is the volatile temperatures this past spring, when several late hard frosts during bloom time killed the blossoms that were supposed to become this year’s apple crop. But because apples are perennial crops, they are vulnerable to year-round weather conditions. There’s a much longer line of culpability here, from last summer’s drought, which affected the development of fruiting buds, to the extreme cold snaps this past winter that damaged or destroyed root stalks. A single stressful climatic event can have long term impacts on a tree’s productivity—and in the past few years, we’ve had quite a few.

Climate change is shifting the possibilities of production for local farmers.

While Wisconsin is not a major national producer of apples, the state has a rich history of apple cultivation, with orchards in almost every county.1 Most Wisconsin orchards are small—about 75 percent have fewer than five acres—and often these orchards do not rely on apple crop as a major source of income. Still, many commercial orchards in the state are relatively small by agricultural standards and were hit just as hard by these weather events. Considering that orchards of all sizes and markets experienced a bad year, what does climate change mean for the future of Wisconsin’s apples? What does it mean for our local agricultural and food landscapes?

I do not ask this question hypothetically. As a Ph.D. student, I work directly with a local apple cidery and farm-to-table restaurant, the Mount Horeb–based Brix Cider (Brix), in a community-based research project to support local farmers and identify pathways toward resilience in our food system. Through this research we ask what resilience looks like in the context of South Central Wisconsin’s foodscape and what kinds of partnerships and processes drive that change. Brix is well-positioned to help drive these conversations. Matt and Marie Raboin, co-owners of Brix, established their cidery with the underlying mission to source their ingredients as locally as possible. Local sourcing not only bolsters vibrant rural economies, it celebrates the uniqueness of the apples found here in South Central Wisconsin. Because all the ingredients can be sourced directly from small-scale Wisconsin farms, cider offers an opportunity for strengthening connections between farmer, community, and land.

This fall, apples are a stark reminder that climate change is shifting the possibilities of production for local farmers. Although apple growers have always had to adapt to unpredictable weather, the increasing rate of extreme events is creating long-term effects on the trees’ productivity. For example, a drought one year will aggravate a tree and make it more susceptible to stress the following year. But it’s the early frost events that are the biggest single threat to a season’s harvest. As Brix owner Matt Raboin explained to me, “The big picture is that the average bloom time creeps earlier and earlier every year with climate change. But we still get a lot of volatility during the spring, like nighttime temperature crashes. Depending on what stage the apple blossom is at, those crashes can kill the blossoms.”

A large pile of brown, discolored apples in a wooden crate with a green orchard in the background
Russeting, which causes rough patches of brown skin to form, is common among traditional apple varieties. Though less popular for commercial production due to these cosmetic traits, they make great contributions to cider. Photo by Matt Raboin.

Apple Shortage of 2012

These extreme weather conditions and subsequent apple shortages are becoming more common for growers. This year’s apple harvest was historically low—second only to 2012, which was the worst year for apple growers on record since 1945. Michelle Miller, an economic anthropologist I chatted with recently, recalled similar weather turbulence in 2012. “We had a weird spring that got super warm and then really cold. The harvest that fall was overall really poor, but not everywhere. In the Driftless [Region], there were some pockets where the harvest was okay.”

Thankfully for apple growers, these temperature fluctuations are not homogeneously devastating across a region or even an orchard. Apple trees planted on northern slopes will likely have a later bloom time, so early spring cold snaps are less likely to inflict crop damage. Trees planted on higher ridgetops, which elevates them from the frost settling in valleys, can also help.

Green apple trees with a light covering of frost, with a foggy treeline in the background
Frost settles in the valley at Door Creek Orchard. Photo by Black Krim Creative.

Michelle works with the Eco-Fruit Program, a partnership between University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association that encourages apple growers to adopt integrated pest management (IPM) practices and move away from overreliance on potentially harmful synthetic pesticides. Apples are highly susceptible to diseases, and insect pests love apples. Rising average temperatures during the growing season may decrease generation time for some insects, and warmer temperatures combined with increased precipitation can also lead to more fungal disease outbreaks. The Eco-Fruit Program works through farmer-to-farmer networks to share information and best practices related to pest management. As Michelle recalled to me, the impacts of the low 2012 harvest led to growing awareness of the interconnectivity of the entire agroecosystem in which apples grow. “That year, the discussion [within the farmer networks] became, We need to understand the physiology of these plants and how they respond to these weather changes in the context of the whole system,” including the impacts that weather has on pollinators and soil systems.

Solutions for Small Growers

Understanding the situated, interconnected systems in which apples grow is integral to addressing climate impacts. As I learned from Matt, even the location of the tree can impact apple growth because slight variations in microclimates can affect blossom development. Trees growing on northern slopes produced more apples this year because the buds on those slopes blossomed later. But since most apple orchards are just a few acres, and many orchards are generationally passed down, most growers don’t have the luxury of location choice.

As a more immediate step, some orchards turn to technological solutions. For example, trellising systems help control the growth of the apple trees by training them to grow along short trellises. Dwarf apple tree varieties are often used, and the result is a more intensive growing system that improves the costs of labor. The upfront cost of trellising is high, says Matt, but with reduced labor costs and improved harvest, the infrastructure investments typically pay off. Trellising can support other technical solutions as well. Irrigation systems are easier and more cost-effective to set up along trellises, which can dramatically reduce drought risk. Hail nets are also easier to set up along trellises, which can protect not only against hail damage but also sunburn and heat stress.

A snow-lined path runs through rows of apple trees covered in red apples and patches of snow
Trellised apple trees after an early snowfall. Photo by Matt Raboin.

For small-scale apple orchards, though, these technologies may be out of reach. Technical solutions like trellising and irrigation require bigger upfront investments, which often only commercial-scale orchards can cover. Commercial orchards also design their production around surplus, anticipating that they’ll have more than enough apples in a given season. As a result, it was the commercial orchards that Brix relied on for apples this season. Brix typically purchases most of their supply from small-scale orchards within 50 miles of Mount Horeb, often apples from wild and noncommercial orchards that the Raboins pick themselves. This intentional sourcing underpins their mission of building closer connections to their community and to the land. This year, instead of handpicking most of their apples, “we had to hedge our bets by sourcing from more commercial orchards,” which ultimately changed that personal connection from the supply chain. One of those commercial orchards is Munchkey Apples, for which investments in trellising, irrigation, and frost fans paid off this year with good harvest returns. Another is Seaquist Orchards in Door County, where regional differences in weather have made a big difference. 

Building Orchard-to-Orchard Relationships

To be clear, these orchards are still Wisconsin-based, family-owned businesses. Rather than suggesting disconnections for Brix, relying on these orchards represents readjusting what those connections mean. This year, Brix depended on different kinds of relationships in the supply chain.

Michelle also spoke of the importance of producer connections during the 2012 season. “Overall, the harvests were really poor, but it wasn’t poor everywhere. There were some pockets in the Driftless Area where the harvest was okay. And in previous years there were parts of the Great Lakes region that had been hit really hard, and Wisconsin growers sent apples to those regions.” So, in 2012, when Wisconsin orchards needed assistance, it was those long-term relationships between orchards in different areas and regions that facilitated orchard-to-orchard support. “It was a really interesting use of trust and relationships in the supply chain,” Michelle reflected. “You were kind to me in the past so I’ll help you out by giving you apples this year.”

Climate change solutions are not single-orchard issues.

In my research, I ask farmers, business owners, and community members to define resilience. Over and over again, I hear different versions of the sentiment that resilience is about relationships—between farmers; between farmers, businesses, and consumers; and between eaters and food. “In some ways, resilience is about seeing people as humans and having relationships with farmers that are not just transactional,” one respondent reflected.

In light of these conversations, I’m reminded of the “yeoman myth” that persists throughout U.S. agriculture. As Adam Calo recently wrote, this myth paints a portrait of the individualistic, independent (and white/male) farmer who, through grit and determination, achieves a moralistic self-sufficiency. Yet this idealized farmer, who is typically associated with romantic pastoralism and historically rooted in settler colonial agrarianism and state-sponsored legacies of land exclusion and dispossession, has never truly existed. Related is the widespread veneration of the small family farm. Rather than offering a realistic portrayal of agrarianism in the U.S., these ideals subvert alternative farming structures, such as collective ownership or cooperative farming, and the myriad benefits of farmer connectedness.

A person's hand holds a golden apple marked with small black spots and brown bruising
This apple bears the marks of poor growing weather. The black dots are most likely sooty blotch, a fungus that grows on apples when humidity is high during the cool season. The brown russeting was probably caused by frost damage during the growing season. Photo by Matt Raboin.

Which brings me back to my original question: what does climate change mean for small-scale apple growers in Wisconsin as they face intensified climate impacts and some of the lowest harvests in decades? Some researchers speculate that orchards will need to intensify production through technological advancements to contend with climate change. The reflections above, though, lead me to believe that climate change solutions are not single-orchard issues. Technological fixes may mitigate the impacts from extreme weather events on a seasonal basis, but these events are unpredictable and the best practices that growers live by are changing year by year. As Matt noted, “It’s hard to make a new rule of thumb when there’s so much uncertainty.” There’s only so much a grower can do to reduce climate risk within a single orchard, or even within a single region.

Instead, the future for orchards, and businesses like Brix who source from them, might lie in creating a new ideal of a connected farmer who is resilient through their relationships. It might look like a web of connections across orchards and even regions, with supply chains that move through trust and respect. Perhaps Brix reevaluates its list of connections that cider creates: to land, to community, and to the networks of apple growers who work together to face the uncertainties of the future. Maybe these connections extend to consumers too—and not just through the Honeycrisp, but through growing awareness of how the agricultural landscape is changing every year, and how our expectations of what apples in fall mean might change with it.

Featured image: Beth Raboin handpicks apples from a “hidden” orchard near Blanchardville, Wisconsin. Well-maintained but no longer in commercial production, orchards like these have long supported Brix’s local cider production. Photo by Matt Raboin.

Jules Reynolds is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geogrphy and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on community-engaged resilience and transformation of community food systems in South-Central Wisconsin. Her last contribution to Edge Effects wasThere’s More than One World. There’s a Pluriverse” (August 2019). Twitter. Contact.

  1. Michelle Miller, Regina Hirsch, Carol Barford, Tom Green, Brent McCown, and Michael Bell, “Climate change and risk in perennial farming systems: Resiliency planning for perennial fruity production in the Upper Midwest,” grant proposal submitted to USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, 2013.