Phil Tregunno's predictions for a dismal fruit harvest this year weren't far off – and that means consumers should brace themselves for sticker shock in the produce aisle.
If you're planning on making any plum jam, peach cobbler or apple pie, be prepared for a price hike.
This spring, the chairman of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board, which represents growers of peaches, plums, cherries, pears and other tender fruits, had anticipated steep losses for Ontario growers, after wild fluctuations in weather caused widespread crop damage across the province.
Mr. Tregunno says while some crops have fared better than expected, his members face a $20-million loss this year. Only about 20 per cent of the province's plums and cherries survived the erratic weather. Pears, which are still being harvested, are also expected to amount to 20 per cent of last year's crop. Peaches, however, have turned out slightly better than anticipated – 75 per cent survived, rather than the 70 per cent feared.
Fruit harvests across Ontario, Quebec and the northeastern United States are now reflecting the damage inflicted this spring. Unseasonably warm temperatures in March had induced an early bloom, which was vulnerable to subsequent deep frosts. Other parts of Canada were spared such extremes.
The Ontario apple industry, which produces around 40 per cent of the country's apples, was particularly hard hit. Some growers lost their entire crop, says Brian Gilroy, chairman of the Ontario Apple Growers, which represents growers throughout the province. About 80 per cent of the province's apples were wiped out, he says.
The situation is less severe in Quebec, where apple trees did not bloom as early as they did in Ontario, New York state and Michigan. Thus, the buds were able to tolerate the frosts, says Steve Levasseur, president of the province's apple growers association, La Fédération des producteurs de pommes du Québec. Quebec growers are expecting a 10-per-cent dip in this year's harvest, compared with their five-year average.
All this has meant a near doubling in fruit prices for processors, who use the fruit for jams, in frozen foods, baked goods, juice and other processed commercial products. For fresh fruits at grocery stores and farmers' markets, consumers can expect retail price increases of 30 to 50 per cent.
"You know the farmer's favourite saying in a year like this?" Mr. Gilroy says. "There's always next year."
Here's a recap of the outcomes:
Supply down: 25 per cent
Though the crop is smaller, the quality is exceptional. Mr. Tregunno says the hot, dry summer has produced higher sugar content in peaches.
Ontario retail prices of common freestone peach varieties, such as Redhaven and Vivid, are between approximately $3.44 and $3.77 per three-litre basket, compared with about $2.99 per basket a year ago.
Supply down: 80 per cent
Ontario retail prices for common varieties of plums, from The Early Golden variety to California Blue, are up about 30 per cent.
A 1.5-litre container of plums that cost around $3.84 last year, now costs about $4.99.
Supply down: 80 per cent
Ontario red tart cherries, used in commercial processing for jams and pies, are up to $1 per pound, compared with around 30 cents per pound last year.
(Mr. Tregunno says the harvest of Ontario sweet cherries was close to nonexistent this year. However, prices have been kept relatively stable due to imports of U.S.-grown cherries.)
Supply down: estimated 80 per cent
Ontario producers are just harvesting pears right now, so few have yet to reach the retail market. Early prices for such common Ontario-grown pear varieties as Bartlett, indicate a $1 increase per two-litre container to about $3.99, compared with a year ago.
Supply down: 80 per cent in Ontario; 10 per cent in Quebec
In Ontario, apple varieties like Ambrosia, Honeycrisp and Ontario Gala fared better than Empire and McIntosh varieties. "It's a real dog's breakfast," Mr. Gilroy says, "...and it's generally speaking not all that pretty because of the fairly high percentage of fruit that will be misshapen or frost-scarred."
Apples that cost $1 per pound last year are expected to increase to $1.50 per pound this year.
In Quebec, Mr. Levasseur says early apples are retailing at $1.49 per pound, compared with less than $1 per pound last year.
Sources: Ontario Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board, Ontario Apple Growers and La Fédération des producteurs de pommes du Québec