Apr 11, 2007
Frozen Easter Spoils Fruit Crops Across Eastern U.S.

A wave of Arctic cold swept over the eastern United States a few days before Easter, doing extensive damage to fruit over a wide area.

“Now you know why they call it the Corn Belt and not the Fruit Belt,” said Mitch Lynd, an apple grower from southern Ohio.

The day before Easter, temperatures there fell to 19 degrees and stayed there for four hours, catching apples in tight- to open-cluster.

“It’s a wipeout; there’s nothing left,” he said on Monday. The last time his farm had a crop failure was 1977. He talked to other growers in Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana and Arkansas, where reports were similar. Damage extended up to the Great Lakes and east until the maritime influence there provided some protection.

Jerry Frecon, fruit Extension specialist in New Jersey, said temperatures had gotten to 28 degrees and were hovering near freezing, but said there was no significant damage to peaches or blueberries. There was damage in states further south – South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia.

John Strang, the Extension fruit specialist in Kentucky, said, “It pretty well froze out the tree fruits. Most blueberries are gone. For strawberries, it depends. Primary and some secondary flowers are gone.”

Surveying the damage the day after Easter, he began telling growers to prepare for a minimal disease control program for tree fruits, based on a less expensive material such as mancozeb, and not worry much about insects other than the foliage-feeding Japanese beetle. Not much need for fruit protection.

In Arkansas, horticulturist John Clark returned from the experiment station at Clarksville to say, “I have firsthand knowledge, and it’s a mess – and a great big one. I can’t believe how severe the damage is.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in 28 years in Arkansas. There are no bright spots for fruit crops – even blueberries. With highbush blueberries, we always get a crop. But I couldn’t find anything live.”

Blackberries were devastated, he said, as were most grapes, other than muscadines.

Clark’s work as a breeder of peaches and blackberries had already been started, with most of the crossing work already done. Those flowers are gone, and there’ll be nothing gained in those areas of his fruit research this year.

“Hard to believe. There’ll be no peaches to eat in Arkansas.”

In Michigan, Mark Longstroth, the Extension fruit specialist in Van Buren County, said damage was widespread inland from Lake Michigan, but 5 to 7 miles from the lake, fruit was OK.

“I expect 75 percent of our tart cherries are gone,” he said. “There’s some damage in apples. Red Delicious and other early blooming varieties were hurt more than Golden Delicious or Rome, which bloom later.

“There were some losses to grapes, but quite variable, depending on distance from the lake.”

Blueberries were just starting to open, he said, and should be OK.

Mira Bulatovic-Danilovich, Michigan’s west central district fruit educator, said her bud cutting expedition showed both sweet and tart cherries has suffered “anywhere from 14 to 92 percent damage to the height of about 7 to 8 feet (as far as I could reach by pulling the branches down).

“Tart cherries are showing mainly 30 to 35 percent damage with one exception where I found up to 64 percent damaged buds.”

“If there is a silver lining in this, we have higher percentage of partially damaged buds where one or two flowers are lost. Apples in the same area are doing very good. I had trouble finding bad buds. One block of cling peaches that was just starting to show calyx green before the cold snap is not looking too swift.”

“A week ago, we were setting record highs in the mid 70s and apricots were in full bloom,”Longstroth said about southwest Michigan. “Frigid weather arrived on Wednesday, with snow and highs near freezing for the next four days. We had low temps in the lower 20s with a wind for six, eight and 12 hours on successive days. Lows near 20 occurred on Friday and Saturday mornings. Low temperatures were a few degrees higher close to Lake Michigan, and the extreme cold did not last as long so they fared better, but away from the lake we got hit hard.

“We are not wiped out, but many fruit crops were damaged by the freeze. It seems obvious to me that the entire eastern half of the nation has been hit hard and that fruit crops here in the east will be scarce, and a lot of growers will be looking to supplement their income.

“Does anyone south of Michigan have any fruit left?” he asked, and the next day put that question on the Virtual Orchard Web site.

Apple disease specialist David Rosenberger from New York reported:

“In the Hudson Valley, we have also had a number of nights of temperatures of 20 to 23 degrees here in our research orchards, and we tend to have a warmer location than many growers. However, apples are still mostly at silver tip, although a bit of green is showing on early varieties and early locations. I’m assuming that apples here will come through even though there may be some damage.

“Stone fruits are certainly more questionable. Our apricots were not yet at pink, but the buds were pretty swollen and I’m certain they will take a hit. Peaches and sweet cherries, who knows? Since cold weather is predicted to continue for another seven to 10 days, I figure there is no rush to make any assessments because the cold is not over yet in this area.”

“The news from Illinois is probably worse,” said Mosbah Kushad, University of Illinois fruit specialist. “Apples and peaches were about a week earlier than normal due to the warm weather we had two weeks back.

“The peach crop in the southern part of the state is pretty much gone. Peaches were in full bloom when temperature dipped to 18 last weekend. The apple crop also suffered severe damage. In the central part of the state, king flowers in apples were in pink. We had 19, 20 and 22 degrees and wind of 22 miles per hour.

“The lucky ones will probably have some fruits, but many will not. In the northern part, apples are in either half-inch green or tight cluster. Some growers reported damage on early varieties. This morning, the temperature was 29 degrees in Champaign and the weather wizard predicts more freezing temperatures next week. Berry crops also suffered severe damage, especially those that were not protected with row covers or sprinklers.”

Marvin Owings, an apple specialist with North Carolina Extension in Hendersonville, said it would be week’s end before he has an official loss estimate. But he projected a 90 percent loss for the county’s apples. This freeze-out could equal the other historic benchmark disaster year, 1955, he said.

Keith Yoder, the research and Extension tree fruit pathologist in Winchester, Virginia, said:

“Our low Sunday morning was 26. Lows the previous nights were 29 and 27. There was some wind each of those nights. The most advanced cultivars, such as Idared and Red Delicious, were showing some early pink at the higher elevations, but were not yet at open cluster. Peaches were near full bloom.

“I see damage to some king bloom of earlier cultivars, but at this point would say there is still the potential for a full crop of apples on our trees. The peaches still have enough live flowers to make a full crop, but I will reserve judgment on them because I think the miserable pollination/ fruit set conditions might be as much of a factor as the freeze in final fruit set in our situation.

“Yesterday we visited an orchard in central Virginia, south of Charlottesville, which also has the potential for a full crop in spite of cold and windburn on petals of open bloom and flower cluster leaves.

“Reports from farther south in Virginia are generally less optimistic, with colder temperatures and more advanced bud stage than we had in the Winchester area.”

In Georgia, preliminary reports from around the state show most of the apple, peach, and blueberry crops were damaged in the below freezing temperatures that covered most of the state on Easter weekend, said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

“The apple and peach crops in North Georgia are wiped out. And middle to south Georgia may have 50 percent or less of the peach crop left.”

North and southeast Georgia appear to have suffered more than the southwest, Irvin said.

“County agents in the blueberry area are saying that much of the current crop is damaged, some with an 80 to 90 percent loss,” Irvin said.

Gerard Krewer, the University of Georgia blueberry specialist, said 75 percent or more of the blueberry tonnage in Georgia was taken out as temperatures fell to 26 to 28 degrees. The rabbiteye varieties, the major share, had undergone “tremendous damage,” while the highbush varieties were ”generally OK.”

“It’ll be a year to talk about for some years to come,” he said.

Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s Country Store and Farms near St. Louis, Mo., considered flying helicopters above his apples and peaches, but realized it was futile. The freeze brought high winds and no reservoir of warm air to pull into the orchard.

Eckert said it was too early to predict how much of his 175 acres of apples and 220 acres of peaches will be lost, but about 50 percent of the Red Delicious buds he checked Saturday were dead.

“Anything open was pretty much lost,” he said. He hoped later blooming varieties would fare better.

He predicted half a crop of strawberries, after double-tarping them for five days. Open blossoms were lost.

The big disaster for Eckert’s was in peaches, a crop that pulls customers to the store. He said only 5 percent to 10 percent of the peaches were left alive. Temperatures fell to 23? F the Friday before Easter and stayed below freezing for 18 hours, he said. Cold winds blew at 20 to 30 miles per hour.

The setup for disaster came from warm temperatures earlier in March. Eckert said having apples in full bloom on April 5 was “unprecedented.”

Like many other successful farm markets, Eckert’s was built on sales of its own production and added produce as a supplement. This year, the market will stay open but with less of its own product to sell.

“People come a long way to buy peaches from us,” Chris said.

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