Freeze risk high this spring for state’s fruit and wheat growers
April 05, 2012
WINCHESTER—Virginia’s apple growers are concerned that an unusually early warm spell this spring could be damaging to their apple and peach crops. Meanwhile, wheat farmers are worried a serious cold snap could hurt their winter wheat yields.
“Last week we had a fair amount of freeze damage to both peaches and apples,” said James Douglas, a Frederick County fruit grower and member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Apple Marketing Committee. “But we have six more weeks of potential cold weather to worry about. We’ve had killing frosts up to the middle of May in the past.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced the record warm temperatures that baked two-thirds of the nation in March were highly unusual but tied mostly to chance. Temperatures were as much as 35 degrees higher than normal in some areas of the United States and averaged 18 degrees higher than normal. An uncommon wind pattern funneled warm air from the Gulf of Mexico north into the Midwest, South and Northeast, NOAA said. The last time an event like that happened in early spring was 1910.
“This is the warmest spring I’ve ever remembered,” Douglas said. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen peaches bloom in March, and the apples were at least two weeks early. April 26 is the average bloom date for apples in Winchester. But the crop hasn’t matured as quickly the last few days because it has been cooler.”
In Virginia’s wheat fields, “the wheat is growing quicker, and if it joints and then heads, it’s much more sensitive to cold,” said David Coleman, VFBF grain marketing manager. “That means freeze damage could lead to lower yields.” Winter wheat harvest typically doesn’t begin until early June in Virginia. The crop was planted on 180,000 acres in Virginia in 2010 and generated $40.8 million in cash receipts for farmers.
The hardest part for all growers is that they are helpless to prevent most freeze damage. “With the cost of fuel, heating the orchards is totally impractical,” Douglas said. “Wind machines and even helicopters have been used, particularly for very high-value fruit.
“Watering will help, but there’s very little water available near the orchards,” he added. “I understand you need at least 70 gallons of water a minute to cover an acre to protect from frost damage. I’ve seen it done in Florida or for strawberry crops, but not here.”
Contact Douglas at 540-667-4535, Coleman at 804-290-1105 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.