Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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Climate change forces Washington apple cider industry to adjust

The future of the business may depend on how apple growers and cider-makers start adapting now to conditions they can’t anticipate.

By Hannah Weinberger, Crosscut
Published:

Something is off with Andrew Byers’ apples.

Byers, a co-owner and head cider-maker of Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Chimacum, a town in Jefferson County, is standing in an apple orchard. It’s mid-September, harvest time, and the Ashmead’s Kernel trees are out of whack.

“I don’t get it,” he says. The trees have their wires crossed, full of apples about to drop, but also, strangely, new blossoms starting too late in the season to mature. Sun-blistered fruit sags into the ground nearby. “It doesn’t mean good things. That much I know for sure,” Byers says.

It may well be the short-term effects of a bad year, he says, but the bad year and its weather are connected to the long-term impacts of climate change that could build into huge hurdles for Washington’s cider industry.

The fallout from climate change is evolving rapidly, changing weather patterns and boosting extreme weather such as heat waves, as well as wildfires. But the apple cider industry moves at the pace of its trees.

Growers are used to fluctuating conditions, but supply chains that stretch years into the future give cider-makers and especially growers less flexibility to pivot in the middle of crises. Industry insiders say cider drinkers’ access to the complex, locally sourced and made beverages that have earned so many fans in the Pacific Northwest may depend on how apple growers and cider-makers start adapting now to conditions they can’t entirely anticipate.

For many growers considering multidecade investments, uncertainty about how to plan puts everyone on edge. Growers are implementing ways to protect their crops from the elements, exploring different kinds of more resilient apple varieties and conserving waning resources like water, but they can’t as easily change out the crops themselves. “We’re at a transition point,” says Tim Larsen, one of the founders of estate cidery Snowdrift Cider in East Wenatchee. And even changes that feel necessary, like using less water, seem risky. “If that makes me less competitive today, will I have a tomorrow that I need to worry about?” Byers adds.

The stakes 

Climate change on average is expected to exacerbate longer, hotter summers with more extreme weather events and wildfires; longer and more severe periods of water stress, even for irrigated parts of the state; and more of the diseases and pests that thrive in those conditions.

The results of those changes could be a hard prospect to swallow for cider enthusiasts in Washington and beyond.

The Pacific Northwest produces more cider than any other region in the country, with Washington in the top five states overall. And no state is more important to apples than Washington, which produces 10 billion to 12 billion apples annually, about 64% of the nation’s apples.

According to the Northwest Cider Association’s Michelle Markestyn, the cider industry was booming here before the pandemic, growing from fewer than 10 cideries in the region in 2010 to at least 101 today, while demand for cider grew tenfold. The cider association’s members generate $700 million of economic impact in our region, and $300 million in Washington specifically, the association says.

In order to provide the complex cider flavors driving the industry, most cider orchards grow a small mix of apple trees, tiny in comparison to the large orchards that grow apples for eating. If those small cider orchards do not survive the demands of climate change, there will be a lot fewer drinking options in the cider industry, which depends significantly on a few varieties of eating apples.

The last time the Northwest Cider Association surveyed cider-makers on their apple spending, they found cideries spent $5,466,000 on Washington apples.

“If there was a widespread crop failure in Washington, cider production would suffer nationwide,” says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association.

But even smaller-scale crop failures would be a problem.

An overwhelming 96% of Northwest Cider Association’s members are micro-cideries, producing less than 250,000 gallons of cider annually; nearly 50% are nano-cideries producing fewer than 10,000 gallons annually. Many of these cideries are new, still investing more than they earn and competing with buzzy alcohol trends like hard seltzer.

“Before the pandemic, despite the growth, the reality was that many craft cideries had yet to realize meaningful profits, and the industry as a whole was at a precarious inflection point,” Markestyn says.

Regional brands are more popular with drinkers in Washington than in the U.S overall. They make up almost 75% of cider’s market share in the state; nationally, regional brands claim 52% of the market. And cideries have lost 40% to 80% of their business in the pandemic.

Climate change could change the very identity of regional cider made from fruits grown locally.

“When you apply critical thinking to your [sustainable] purchasing choices. It makes a lot more sense to buy local and support small operations,” says Jill Scheffer, president of Ellensburg-based Kittitas Environmental Education Network, which put on the WindFall Cider Fest fundraiser on Oct. 2 with 10 local cider houses. “I really think that’s the only way we’re going to survive here.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes 

Apples aren’t native to Washington, but they do well in our climate, where seasons have been consistent and mild enough to usher apple trees through their full life cycles.

These trees need cold enough winters to put them into full dormancy and kill pests and disease. Springs need to be cool enough to let buds grow without getting sun damaged or frostbitten, and summers should be warm enough to kickstart sugar production without withering the trees. They need adequate water from rain, natural river flows or reservoirs. Most Washington apples grow with targeted irrigation in Central Washington, which has warm, dry summers and less of the humidity that fosters pests and disease.

But changes in temperature, water access, disease, pests and seasonality, as well as more extreme weather, concern cider-makers and people who facilitate the supply chain on both sides of the mountains.

Growers in Wenatchee lost light-sensitive varieties like Red-Flesh apples when temperatures hit 114 degrees during the June heat wave, but even coastal growers felt the burn. Some of Lynden-based Bellewood Farms & Distillery’s cider trees sunburned “so badly that they couldn’t even be used for juice,” says Blake Abel, farm operations vice president, who estimates the farm lost 10% of total apple yield. Bellewood typically produces between 950,000 and 1 million pounds of apples annually.

Sunburn is the top reason for fruit loss in Washington, and it can have delayed impacts. Just as how sunburns can develop into cancers in humans many years into the future, cell damage doesn’t always show up immediately in apples. Fruit that seems fine going into storage might spoil, or bruise easily.

Heat stress hurts nonapple ingredients, too. Estimates show each cidery on average relies on three to four different orchardists and farmers for ingredients, from stone fruits to botanicals, Markenstyn says. Finnriver’s Byers sources apples alone from six different orchards and a number of hobbyist growers, and gets other ingredients from at least six other farmers. He wanted to buy 1,000 pounds of organic black currants from Nettle Grove Farm in the Okanogan Valley, but the crop failed in the heat wave.

Apples don’t seem to be susceptible to the “wildfire smoke taint” that has damaged grapes and hops. “Those bins can smell like a barbecue, but when you bring them in, the fruit itself tends to be pretty good,” says Larsen of Snowdrift Cider in East Wenatchee.

However, because smoke can reduce sun exposure, some growers wonder if apples may get tricked into thinking it’s later in the season than it is, triggering premature ripening. As Washington State University’s Lee Kalcsits noted in a 2019 keynote industry presentation, higher summer temperatures and earlier fruit maturity increase the risk of sunburn.

The heat and smoke also hurt the people picking the apples: Some West Coast harvesters died during the heat waves this year. Wildfires reduced air quality and limited the time people can safely spend picking. Together with the pandemic, these things caused delays in recent harvest seasons, says Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association and ex-officio member of the Northwest Horticultural Council Science Advisory Committee’s Climate Change Subcommittee.

“Working conditions will have to adapt to protect the lives of farmworkers as extreme heat and smoke become more common working conditions in orchards,” says McGrath of the American Cider Association.

Drought is an existential problem as things like mountain snowpack become less reliable. Growers in Central Washington can lean on reservoirs, for now, Larsen says. Even Western Washington, growers have started irrigating within the past few years, says Carol Miles, a professor of vegetable horticulture who leads a cider orchard research program at WSU in Mount Vernon.

Warmer weather boosts fire blight, and if things like winter temperatures rise, pest species may get a jump-start in the spring. “They’re just hanging out, basically waiting for the temperatures to warm up again and then off they go,” Miles says.

Most cideries depend on waste “processor apples,” apples like Fujis and Honeycrisps that aren’t pretty enough for grocery store displays, and which are “so stinkin’ cheap and readily available,” Larsen says. Cider apples tend to get pressed immediately, while eating apples can sit in warehouses for a year before getting pulled out for processing. Yakima’s FruitSmart and Hood River Juicing Company produce most of the juices used by cideries around the state, Larsen says, with newer cideries especially dependent upon them. “Many cider operations do not press their own apples, except maybe at a small scale,” Larsen says.

Nancy Bishop of Alpenfire Cidery believes traditional cider apple growers will suffer most from climate change. That means cider will tend toward using juice made from these eating apple rejects, plus employing rapid fermentation and additives to achieve complex flavors.

Hotter summers also mean more cooling requirements, and many cideries don’t have access to temperature control equipment strong enough to handle heat waves. Two bad weeks could damage quality control for fermenting ciders, or apples in storage. “If that becomes a more baked-in part of our summer, that is going to have some pretty significant consequences,” Larsen says.

Some cider-makers think that increasing reliance on cider apples could be economically useful, since they don’t need to be graded or pretty. But there are plenty of battles to be won in growing good apples, even ugly apples, Byers says.

The fact that cider-makers can purchase “ugly” ingredients, though, means they may have better access to ingredients in bad seasons than fresh produce buyers do. “If you’re looking for ways to support farmers that are struggling, we have some creativity in the cider market for sure,” Byers says.

Adjusting

While growers can change how they treat and protect their crops, they can’t easily change out crops themselves.

These perennial trees can take two years to mature in a nursery, and about five more years to optimally produce fruit, says Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, though timelines vary by variety.

Orchards like Finnriver are planting differently in part to deal with water stress, transitioning away from dwarf trees to bigger trees that Byers says are more climate resilient. “I think what we’re seeing is more and more people preparing for having less water, and getting and using water much more efficiently,” Snowdrift’s Larsen says.

He’s mulching down orchards to retain water, bringing in bees to ensure pollination and moving away from monoculture, interplanting apple trees with crops like pears, plums and goumi berries to increase the biodiversity Byers thinks will make all of the plants more resilient.

Most orchards have started using netting that not only keeps trees cool, but reduces evaporation.

DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association says growers will have to double down on existing pest management tools, like applying pheromones and releasing sterile insects to make mating harder; and adding beneficial pest-eating insects to orchards.

Hanrahan’s colleagues are exploring ways to help growers better monitor their trees through a Smart Orchard program that uses sensors and digital displays. “You cannot manage what you don’t monitor,” she says. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission is also researching nanoparticles that could protect blossoms during frosts, and how to ensure pollination.

Growers are looking for varieties of apples that are more climate resilient, like the heat-resistant Cosmic Crisps, or varieties that don’t need as many cool days throughout the year. Hanrahan hazards that their flavors make take some getting used to.

Ultimately, while the character and complex flavors that give Washington cideries their identity are at risk, it seems far-fetched that cider as a whole could go away — especially when cider doesn’t depend on aesthetically perfect fruit to work. Hanrahan notes that apple growers have always had to adapt to conditions. “I’m confident fruit growers will be able to deal with climate change, to a point,” she says.

The epicenter of cider production, however, could change. “The ultimate consequence for cider may be less variety choice,” McGrath says.

“So long as the trees survive,” Byers says, “cider will survive.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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