Long winter having an effect on farms

LONG RAPIDS – In one of Pour Boys Honey owner Luke Dreyer’s lots, he watched as a few of his bees flew from one of several hives kept there for the winter.

It was just warm enough Thursday for them to head out and circle back. A few fell to the snow and stopped moving.

They were among the unlucky ones, and Dreyer’s bee hives have taken heavy losses this winter.

“You don’t see any other bees because a lot of these are dead,” he said.

The cold’s not over yet, so Dreyer still doesn’t know how many bees he’ll lose, he said. He’s already lost most of his hives, and has heard from some beekeepers who lost everything.

“Winter losses are definitely to be expected. You can’t control every hive, and some hives are plain-out weaker than others. But losses like what we’re experiencing are definitely not typical,” he said.

Bees stay huddled together during the winter, and they circulate from the outside of the cluster to the inside, Dreyer said. Their body heat keeps temperatures at the center in the 70- to 90-degree range.

The harsh cold keeps the cluster from spreading, meaning the bees can’t move to eat the honey they’ve stored. Plus, without warmer days, they can’t take what are called cleansing flights. During these, bees clean out the hive and answer nature’s call.

“When they can’t do that, they’re much more likely to experience hive stress and disease,” he said. “It weakens the hive, and it’s much harder for the hive to survive the winter.”

It’s one of several ways the harsh winter is affecting farmers and other producers of natural products. But not all of the effects are bad. While the harsh cold has wreaked havoc on bees and harmed some plants, the heavy snow has its benefits.

“It’s kind of two-sided,” Michigan State University Extension educator James DeDecker said. “We’ve had extremes in terms of cold and snow. The cold can have issues oftentimes looking at things that are exposed above the snow.”

Everything below it should be well protected, DeDecker said. It acts like a blanket, preventing the soil below it from freezing deeply, or sometimes altogether. Without a heavy layer of frost, snow melt will soak into the ground, and field crops will be protected as well.

That’s good news for Dave Tolin, who owns a dairy farm near Ossineke. He grows the majority of what he feeds his 280 cows, and farms about 1,000 acres of land. On cold years with little snow pack, his alfalfa and hay fields experience winter kill.

“If we get a good dose of snow on the ground all winter long, especially when it gets real cold like it has this year, it helps out those fields quite a bit,” he said.

That insulating blanket could also mean that insects that spend the winter underground are probably doing better as well, DeDecker said. There are a number of pests found in Michigan that do so, including the potato beetle and the western bean cutworm. Both impact crops grown in Northeast Michigan.

Now, farmers and others are facing another problem: as the cold holds out, the planting season likely will be delayed, DeDecker said. A later planting season means a shorter growing one, often leading to lower crop yields. Farmers might be able to adjust by planting varieties that mature faster.

If warm temperatures arrive suddenly instead of gradually, maple syrup producers could be in trouble, DeDecker said. Sap collection already is behind, A.J. MacArthur said. He runs MacArthur Maple Syrup in Lachine, and owns a farm there as well.

“We haven’t had any to speak of yet,” he said.

If March’s typical freeze-thaw cycles arrive a month late, MacArthur and other maple syrup producers could be OK, he said. Sap collecting is best when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.

The heavy snow is keeping Ed and Dusty Knaebe from pruning their orchard, Knaebe’s Mmmunchy Krunchy Apple Farm and Cider Mill, near Rogers City. They have a narrow window to do so before the trees start budding, and they expect to find lots of broken branches from the snows and a heavy crop in 2013.

“Last year was an exceptionally large crop, so in our particular case, there were quite a few apples left on the trees that we didn’t pick,” Ed Knaebe said.

That heavy crop puts stress on the trees, Dusty Knaebe said, and she’s concerned some of their trees were hurt by the cold. Apple trees are grafted, and some of their root stock is from Russia. These can withstand the cold, but some of their older trees aren’t as hardy.

“Years ago we had a bad winter, and we lost some trees then,” she said.

MacArthur said he’s concerned about his black raspberry plants. His strawberries are under the snow and should be fine, but his raspberries were more exposed, and black raspberries are more tender. Only time will tell how much they were affected.

“That’s the fun of farming, you take what you get in a lot of ways,” he said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.