Quebec apple growers struggle to contain disease affecting trees

The disease has affected between 80 and 100 orchards out of 130 in the Laurentians region

The apple harvesting period may come as a relief to many Quebec growers who have spent the summer fighting a contagious disease spreading through their trees.

For the next four or five weeks, all hands at Pascal Lacroix's orchard in St-Joseph-du-Lac will be occupied with the harvest rush as the high-selling McIntosh, Spartan and Honeycrisp apples come into season.

Afterwards, he and his employees will go back to fighting fire blight, the highly contagious bacterial disease that has affected trees in his orchard, as well as those of many of his neighbours.

The disease has affected between 80 and 100 orchards out of 130 in the Laurentians region, according to the president of a group representing the apple industry.

"Currently in the lower Laurentians, we're in a state of emergency,'' Eric Rochon told The Canadian Press.

The disease causes the trees' leaves and branches to wilt, shrivel and turn brown or black, giving the appearance of being scorched by fire. If allowed to spread, it can cause the death of the tree.

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Rochon says although the disease doesn't affect the quality of the apples, the only way to stop the spread is to rip out the infected branches one by one, by hand.

Until the harvest began, the six people working on Lacroix's farm have been working 60 hours a week to contain the disease. He says he's spent approximately $20,000 to $25,000 in extra labour costs so far, with the outbreak only half contained.

"Yes, it hurts,'' he said. "It's investments we wanted to make that we couldn't make, investments we had to put off. It's the quality of the apples that have suffered, because we couldn't do the necessary maintenance work because we were so busy fighting the blight.''

Another apple producer from the same town, about 45 minutes from Montreal, estimates he has already spent close to $200,000 fighting the disease.

But Marc Vincent says the true impact will only be felt in the coming years.

He says half the young trees he planted in some parcels of land probably won't survive, and some of the older trees have had so many branches cut back he worries they may die too.

"This year we're still having a good harvest, but there will be major repercussions in the next two years,'' he said.

Although the disease has been present to some degree over the last few years, this spring's hot, humid weather provided optimal conditions for it to flourish.

Vincent, for one, says he believes climate change is to blame.

"A hot, humid spring during flowering...10 years ago it was a lot less common,'' he said.

Rochon is calling on the Quebec government to step in and offer emergency financial aid to producers who are struggling.

Currently, he says reimbursement is only available to farmers who have crop insurance, which he says some can't afford.

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"Because (blight) can spread from one orchard to another, it becomes a never-ending cycle if everyone doesn't treat it,'' he said.

He points out the federal and Nova Scotia governments pledged up to $2.69 million to help producers in that province after a 2014 outbreak caused by post-tropical storm Arthur affected 95 per cent of the province's apple and pear orchards.

Quebec's agriculture minister, Pierre Paradis, has said the disease is a priority for the Quebec government.

In early September his office put out a directive requiring all tree owners to treat their trees.

"Talks are underway with the federal government to put in place financial support for operators of commercial orchards affected by blight,'' the news release read.

Both Lacroix and Vincent say financial aid will help, but they're also looking for a little co-operation from Mother Nature.

"Next year, we're hoping for a cool, dry spring,'' Lacroix said.

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