Arthur’s unexpected impact: fire blight will mean many Valley apple trees cut down

John Decoste
Published on August 1, 2014

Weeks after its immediate effects were felt in our area, post-tropical storm Arthur continues to impact Valley apple farmers in unexpected ways.

Arthur’s high winds and rain caused a plant bacteria called fire blight to spread more quickly and farther than in the past.

Nova Scotia Fruit Growers Association president Rob Peill of Starr’s Point said local growers are just starting to realize the impact this has had on our orchards.

Fire blight does not affect animals or humans.  It has been an ongoing problem in Valley orchards for many years, but is normally able to be controlled.

It affects apple, pear, crabapple and hawthorn trees, and is easily recognizable. Trees look as if they have been scorched by fire. If left unchecked, it can seriously damage an orchard.

“We’ve learned how to manage it,” Peill said. “If you can catch it at bloom time, you can usually manage it for the rest of the year.”

Otherwise, he said, “you learn to live with it, and try to mange it the best you can.”


Hurricane force damage

Arthur affected both young and mature trees.

“New tissue was beaten to pieces by the wind, opening the inner tissue up to the air,” Peill explained.

Fire blight is very contagious and the bacteria is easily borne on the wind, especially during a hurricane. That’s caused entire orchards to be affected.

Peill noted that fire blight affects certain varieties more than others.

“Gala, Gravenstein, Russet and Ida Red are among the most susceptible, and Cortlands are usually more affected than McIntosh.”

There is no way to spray for fire blight, and no chemicals that are effective in stopping it.

“It’s a significant problem,” Peill said. “It gets into the tree itself, and kills the branches on larger trees. In smaller trees, it can kill the tree in a couple of days.”


Cutting only solution

The only remediation is to cut out infected branches before it gets to the trunk and let them dry out so it can’t be transferred.

“Once it gets into the trunk, the whole tree has to be cut down,” he said.

He estimated that since the problem was identified, several thousand young trees, five years old or less, have had to be removed in the area.

“I really hate to have to do that to young trees that haven’t even had a chance to really produce yet,” he said.

Peill said he had been through his own orchards several times over the past couple of weeks, cutting out branches that are affected.

“We’re keeping an eye on the younger trees, and if we see damage, we’re cutting it out. With older trees, there‘s often too much to cut out. We’ll just leave them until we prune early next year, then cut out the affected parts at that time.”


Crop concerns

Peill said the NSFGA is unsure what the long-term impact on fire blight will be on this year’s crop, adding, “We’re working aggressively with producers and professionals to mitigate that impact.”

He felt the impact on this year’s crop might not be as bad as it could be as it is mostly young trees that must be removed.

“I’m more concerned with the cost of replacing trees, especially young trees,” he added.

Speaking regionally, Peill said, the fire blight spread has “been quite devastating. Fire blight really hadn’t been seen much in areas like Avonport and Windsor, or in Morristown. This time, it’s looking like those areas have been affected, too.”

And though it’s not much consolation, “we’re not alone. A lot of other areas were hit just as badly.”