Eintime Conversion for education and research 04-24-2007 @ 21:09:47
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Record cold takes a toll on crops

AP wire reports

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The last time Alan Gibson's orchard had early season weather damage, he found a way around it. Hail stones had left more than a dozen dings on every apple, so he dipped their "kind of ugly" skins in chocolate and sold plenty.

"This time, we're not going to have anything to cover with chocolate," he said Monday.

After three days of freezing temperatures and at least one more expected before a warmup, Gibson is predicting a total loss on the 3,000 trees in his small, pick-your-own orchard in Harpers Ferry.

The trees at Ridgefield Farm — with varieties including Nittany, Honey Crisp and Pink Lady — are wired on trellises to help them withstand strong storms. But there was little Gibson could do to protect the tender buds from prolonged temperatures in the 20s.

"We did a preliminary check this morning, and it looks like we've confirmed about a 50% kill. But that's just counting what happened a couple of days ago," he said. "Tonight is supposed to be below freezing, too. ... At this stage, it looks like pretty much a total loss."

Gibson's orchard is so small he can't get crop insurance, and he hasn't begun to estimate his financial loss. But he'll try to make up what he can this fall, when thousands of schoolchildren come to pick pumpkins.

The state Department of Agriculture doesn't survey cold damage, and Barry Crutchfield said it's probably too soon to quantify the damage statewide.

"Generally, if you have temperatures below 28 degrees, that's when you have damage," he said.

Temperatures have been in the low 20s across the Eastern Panhandle since Friday, and farmers there are already calling about lost crops, said Henry Hogmire, West Virginia University extension specialist for the Kearneysville Tree Fruit Research and Education Center.

"Having freezing temperatures in April is not that rare," he said. "What makes it more severe this year is that the fruit bud development is a week ahead of what we would consider normal. ... The buds were more advanced and more susceptible to the freezing."

The research farm has 60 acres of fruit trees, mainly peaches and apples, but Hogmire said the extent of the damage won't be known until the weather improves and the buds begin to thaw.

Typically, an orchard operator can produce a commercial crop even if only 10% of the buds survive, Hogmire said.

"So in an ideal situation, you could lose 80 to 90% of buds and still have a crop," he said.

But many farmers are already at that margin, with a freeze warning still in effect through Tuesday morning and a whole growing season of other potential problems ahead.

Eric Johnson, owner of the Morgan Orchard in Sinks Grove, Monroe County, will learn the extent of his losses after the blossoms on his 23,000 apple and peach trees thaw. But after three nights at 19 degrees, he knows what to expect.

"I'm pretty sure we had a bad thing happen," he said. "From a general overview, it did. All the leaves we had out are all turned brown."

His 100-acre farm is insured, but Johnson won't be able to pick the 16,000 bushels of apples he gathered last season, so he'll likely have to plant more vegetables and pumpkins.

He may not even spend the money he usually does to spray the trees for insects and disease.

In Romney, orchard operator Gary Shanholz has already wasted money pruning and fertilizing his 30,000 apple and peach trees.

"It looks like the peaches are just a complete wipeout," he said.

They were in full bloom early last week, nearly 10 days ahead of schedule. Shanholz cut some budding branches and brought them inside over the weekend, only to see the buds wilt.

"I don't have to wait for them to warm up to see," he said. "Sometimes, they'll still grow. This time, I don't think they're going to."

Shanholz lost a peach crop to the cold in 1995, but apples have usually fared better in 40 years of farming.

"If it's as bad as I think it's been," he said, "it's going to be the worst we've ever had in apples."

"Today was the fifth morning below zero," Shanholz said. "When there's a frost, it's usually just for a few hours, and you can run wind machines and warm it up. But this was just a downright freeze, and it lasted for up to 12 hours at a time for five days.

"It's just impossible."

Crops in Tennessee are also at risk due to the recent cold snap.

Don and Katie Henry celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on their Robertson County farm Saturday morning while record low temperatures outside were destroying all their crops.

Twenty acres of peaches, nine acres of blackberries and seven acres of strawberries at K-D Orchard were wiped out — their worst loss in 25 years of business in Robertson County north of Nashville.

"For fruit, there's a big difference between when temperatures are 25 or 26 degrees and when they reach 19 or 20," Don Henry said Monday. "Around here it was 19 or 20."

Temperatures in the 20s set record lows in Chattanooga, Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville this weekend.

On Monday, state officials had not yet assessed how much harm the freeze had done to crops, but several farmers surveyed said the damage is bad.

A reporter calling a Sumner County farm on Monday and asking whether she had reached Bradley's Kountry Acres received the response, "What's left of it."

Asking if the person on the phone was Mike Bradley got the answer, "What's left of him." Bradley said he had been up since Thursday trying to protect his strawberry crop from the freeze.

"We're hoping we were able to save the majority (of the strawberries)," he said, "but we're pretty sure the peach crop and blackberry crop are going to be a total loss."

Bradley's strawberries were still covered in anticipation of cold temperatures again Monday night, but he had made spot checks of a few plants and thought they would survive.

The severe cold snap, known in folklore as a "dogwood winter," followed an unusually warm March that caused plants to leaf out and bloom early.

"The unusually warm weather just pushed everything out ahead of schedule," Bradley said.

The blackberries were blooming and the peaches were already the size of peas when the cold weather hit.

"You kind of expect a few nights around 30 degrees this time of year, but not down in the 20-22 range," he said.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture spokesman Tom Womack said many farmers had planted corn about two weeks early because of the warm March weather. They also planted more corn than normal, anticipating increased demand for ethanol production.

One farmer in West Tennessee had reported on Monday that his 2-inch and 3-inch tall plants were laid over and had turned dark although they were still green near the ground at the stem.

"Farmers are waiting to see if it will come back or they'll have to replant," he said. "It's still early, so there's time to replant, but there's a concern there may be a shortage of seed."

Another crop that could be damaged is winter wheat. Womack said he had heard that at least one Coffee County farmer whose winter wheat crop had been damaged because the grain had already begun to form when the cold hit.

"It will be several days before we know the full extent of the damage to the various crops," he said.

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