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Unseasonable cold is very real threat to US growers

As if farmers didn’t have their hands full with the effects of the Corona-virus, they are braced for more icy weather as freezing temperatures threaten to damage this year’s fruit crop.

Orchard owners in Georgia’s Greene and Columbia counties said they could see damage to the apple, peach, cherry and plum crops if temperatures fall below freezing this week, as the National Weather Service is predicting.

The potential for frost and freeze will continue into Tuesday and Wednesday, said Dan Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany. The National Weather Service issued a freeze watch for this area on Monday and a freeze warning for western Greene County.

Fruit growers around Southern Georgian Bay fear the worst is yet to come. So far, Tom Ferri says he doesn't see any obvious signs of damage from the cold weather when he peels open a bud from one of his apple trees at TK Orchards. But he knows the wintry weather isn't over just yet.

"It's when you get the clear, calm nights the temperature will really go down, especially when you are in a polar vortex like this when your daytime highs are only three or four degrees if you are lucky," says Ferri. The apple farmer plans to watch the thermometers closely and operate large fans to prevent cold air from settling. Farmers typically use low-flying helicopters to mix up the air, but this season the pandemic has grounded them.

It will be a few days yet before fruit growers across the region know the full extent of damage from the cold weather.

After a cold weekend, Rick Molnar from Molnar Farms in Poland, Ohio, said it’s taking a lot of work to keep their plants going. So far, there is damage to peach trees and strawberry plants. Until the temperature gets warmer, Molnar is not sure how bad the damage will really be.

“You do sweat bullets here, especially some of these nights because we have a lot invested out here,” he said. “If we happen to lose it, if we lost it Friday like our tomatoes and peppers, we don’t have a recourse.”

Molnar said this could affect their bigger crop of the season, which will be planted on Memorial Day. Each day, they take a wait-and-see approach.

In West-Virginia, just weeks after an April frost that devastated central Virginia wineries, and during a time when their tasting room doors have been closed due to the coronavirus, record-low temperatures this weekend dealt another blow to those vineyards. Some report the loss of entire blocks of grapes.

At King Family Vineyards in Crozet, temperatures dropped as low as 27 degrees on Sunday morning. That shatters the record low for that day set in 1947. The vineyard was forced to get creative to try to keep the grapes warm. They battled the frost in the early hours of the morning, using a mix of modern technology and the oldest tricks in the book.

In the same vein, Saturday morning's chilly temperatures were terrible for Michigan's fruit crop. As that state’s Spicer Orchards didn't want their fruit crop wiped out like it was in 2012, they created some of their own weather to battle temperatures that dipped into the upper teens to low 20s on their property early Saturday morning.

"We hired a helicopter to come and push warm air onto our trees. We also lit over 20 bonfires to help bring the temperature up around, and ran our irrigation system, which basically throws 55 degree water out on the farm to help warm the air up," said Spicer Orchards Outdoor Manager Matthew Spicer.

Spicer estimates it cost more than $20,000 between equipment and manpower working non-stop through the night. But that cost pales in comparison to what they could have lost, hundreds of thousands of dollars.






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