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A ripe strawberry and a green berry on the vine in Reeves Peach Farm in Hartselle. A hard freeze may damage area fruit crops.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
A ripe strawberry and a green berry on the vine in Reeves Peach Farm in Hartselle. A hard freeze may damage area fruit crops.

Farmers fear freeze
Cold weather could harm peach, strawberry crops

By Seth Burkett 340-2355

With forecasters predicting three days of record-breaking cold, area growers are worried this weekend's weather could harm young crops.

Peaches and strawberries, already in the stages of bearing small fruit, and grain crops like wheat are particularly vulnerable to cold weather, county extension agents said Thursday.

According to the National Weather Service in Huntsville, temperatures will continue to dip. Friday's forecast low is 27. Saturday night's low is 26 and Sunday's night's low is 29.

"Anything below freezing (32) is potentially dangerous. Probably not one night, but several nights in a row could be pretty tough. And they're predicting several nights of this," said Doug Chapman, a regional extension agent based in Limestone County.

Chapman said the drastic fluctuation in temperature could spell trouble for peaches, apples, blueberries, grapes, muscadines and pecans.

"We had several weeks of 85-, 90-degree temperatures, and stuff started growing, and you had things that normally wouldn't be blooming this early out and growing. Now you've got this freeze coming and going back down into the 20s again, so it's kind of a unique situation and a potentially serious thing," he said.

"Everything right now is in such an advanced stage of growth. I've never seen the potential for pecans to get hurt, for instance, because they're usually late coming out," Chapman said.

"If the growers do not have some sort of freeze protection, they won't have any fruit," Chapman said. "The people that do this for a living will be prepared. The people that do this as a hobby or just have a small home orchard are not prepared and they don't have the infrastructure set up where their plants can survive something like this. ... (But) even the big boys are worried about this one."

He said most commercial growers would implement some sort of protection by Friday night.

Mike Reeves of Reeves Peach Farm in Hartselle spent Thursday taking measures to protect his peaches and strawberries.

"There's a limited amount of things we can do," Reeves said. "Growers will put row covers on the strawberries. That will provide three or four degrees' protection. If it gets in the upper-20s and mid-20s, you can't guarantee you're going to save them, but I'd rather have them out there than not," he said.

The main method of protecting fruit trees is by running overhead irrigation systems throughout the night to coat the fruit with ice. The constantly freezing water releases heat, maintaining the temperature around the fruit at about 32.

If for some reason the sprinklers stop running, the fruit would suffer damage. Also, high winds would render irrigation ineffective, Reeves said.

"The thing about peaches is you can stand some loss. If all the buds that turn to blooms made it through, you'd have to take about 80 percent of those off. With strawberries, you want to save every bloom possible," Reeves said.

The peaches are at their most vulnerable stage, with fruits about the size of a pea.

Ron Sparks, commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, expressed concern Thursday for what appears to be Alabama's best peach crop in several years.

With peaches in their current growth stage, two hours of below freezing temperatures could cause severe damage. Four hours below freezing could destroy the state's entire peach crop, valued at $3 to 5 million, Sparks said.

Sparks said his staff was working with the governor's office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding possibly deploying helicopters to lessen freeze damage.

Most fruits would not recover from severe freeze damage, Chapman said.

"If it gets cold enough, could defoliate trees," he said.

Reeves suggested anyone with tender plants at home take a cue from strawberry growers and cover their plants overnight with a bed sheet or light blanket.

Mark Hall, a regional extension agent based in Madison County said a freeze could also effect row crops.

"The most at risk would be the wheat crop," he said. "The wheat is starting to put out heads and the wheat crop looks good, but this could be devastating to wheat crops."

The worst part is, nothing can be done to save the wheat.

"You just have to trust the good Lord," said Ted Grantland of Priceville. "If it gets to cold, it gets too cold. You can't heat several hundred acres of land."

Grantland raises about 300 acres of wheat on his East Upper River Road farm.

"It's just beginning to head, and I don't know if the freeze would shrivel those kernels or not. We never have had this cold weather, that I can recall. The heads are emerging a little bit earlier this year. It's gotten a little ahead of itself," he said.

While the warm weather has accelerated growth, Grantland also said warmer ground temperatures from a hot March could help crops survive the freeze.

About half of Grantland's farm is devoted to corn, which also could suffer in a freeze.

"Corn could be (at risk), but corn'll take a right smart punishment. I've seen frost damage corn and it put right back out," he said.

A combination of high wheat prices and an increase in the area's wheat-growing this year could make for substantial losses.

Mike Richter, a National Weather Service Meteorologist, said he expects temperatures tonight and Saturday and Sunday nights to break historic lows.

The record low for tonight of 31 was set in 1950, Saturday's record low of 32 was set in 1939, and Sunday night's record low of 33 goes back to 1916.

"I expect all of those to fall. We'll be in the 20s," Richter said.

Freezing weather this time of year is not unusual, as the first week of April is typically the week of the last freeze, he said.

What is atypical is a two- or three-week stretch of highs at least in the 70s followed by a three-day plummet into the 20s, he said.

The last freezing low was March 17. The last low in the 40s was March 19.

A warming trend should begin Monday.

"We'll sort of average out what we've seen the last few weeks," Richter said.

By Wednesday or Thursday, the weather will turn wet, he said.

The area remains under long-term drought conditions despite some temporary relief in the form of a half an inch to an inch of rainfall Tuesday.

"March to April is typically our wettest period and it's been one of the driest," said Richter. "The rainfall deficit is 25 inches from the last 15 months (since the start of 2006). This is the driest start to year on record in Huntsville."

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