Farmers fret frost could kill early blooming fruit

Posted February 20

The unseasonably mild temperatures could spell disaster for area farmers, who watch worriedly as peach trees and strawberry plants bloom weeks before the start of spring.

A cold spell in the coming weeks could wipe out the fruit, so farmers are keeping an eye on the forecast and preparing for a frost.

"It's like a gamble, but with peaches, the gamble is higher because of the frost," said Will Williams, a second-generation peach farmer in Moore County.

Williams' family has more than 5,000 peach trees scattered across several orchards near Candor, and they're planning to plant 1,700 more. He said he's seen all too often when warm February temperatures turn to disaster with a March cold snap.

"Just last year, our field crops were fine, but our peaches, we lost like a lot of our peaches," he said.

Farmers try a variety of methods to protect the precious buds from cold weather, such as spraying trees at night to encapsulate the blooms in a thin layer of ice and protect them from the colder air.

Williams said his family uses windmills to circulate warm air aloft down to the plants. They have two up already and plan to erect another next week.

"It makes it warm on the bottom, right around the trees," he said. "That's all you're worried about is the air right around the trees to hit this. So, if you can change that a few degrees, you'll save your peaches."

Meanwhile, in Wake County, Karma Lee said she's prepared to pull out her row covers to protect the strawberries on her small farm in Apex.

"This really is typical April weather," said Lee, who has been producing strawberries for nearly 20 years. "The plants are well ahead of schedule."

North Carolina is the third-largest strawberry producer in the nation, and the berries represent a $30 million crop annually, said Don Nicholson, a regional agronomist with the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

"I'm hoping for some cool weather to slow these things down," Nicholson said. "If you lose four, five, six blooms per plant and those are coming out of a finite number of crowns in the plant, that’s production we won’t get back."

Lee said she had to plant later than usual last fall because Hurricane Matthew left her fields too wet.

"No two seasons are ever alike, so I guess you just have to be prepared," she said.

If the region escapes another frost this season, Lee and Nicholson said consumers should be ready for an early strawberry season.

"We could potentially be picking berries early April instead of the end of April," Lee said.

"The early blooms and early berries are usually the biggest prettiest berries we have," Nicholson said.


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