Spring Freeze Threatening Fruit Crops
Moore County fruit growers are bracing for a blast of freezing weather through the Easter holiday weekend, just as blushing berries are turning a brazen red and peaches are shucking blossoms to make way for fruit.
This is a nerve-wracking time for fruit growers who are hustling to protect their crops from predicted freezing temperatures.
But growers are optimistic that they have the tools to fend off Mother Nature's early spring threat. It will likely mean several sleepless nights, though.
"We hope the weatherman misses it this time," said Wanda Ring, who helps her husband, Lewis Ring, with an acre and a quarter of strawberries at their farm near Whispering Pines. "We hope the weatherman is wrong."
Richard Pressley is not worrying about crop loss, but said the freezing weather will delay the ripening process. He raises more than three acres of strawberries near Carthage.
"We need warm sunshine," Pressley said.
Pressley said the berries thrive on warmer than normal weather enjoyed in the last two weeks.
Both farm families have already cranked up their irrigation systems to sprinkle crops during the hours when temperatures plunge toward the freezing point. Ice coats the berries and insulates them. Pressley said he expects to get little sleep these nights as he prepares to set up sprinklers to protect his crop.
Ring said her family is likewise prepared to protect their berries.
"We already have ripe berries," Ring said. "They're red, but not quite ripe enough. Give us another week and the sweetness will be there."
Ring has already tasted strawberries, and knows what she's talking about.
The Rings expect to open their farm to the public by April 14, provided, of course, that the weather cooperates beyond this chilly Easter weekend.
Pressley can't be pinned down on exactly when The Berry Patch will open. He said it should be about the middle of the month.
West End peach grower Watts Auman is also keeping a wary eye on the temperatures. He is cautious and said he will have a better understanding of the situation later in the weekend.
Taylor Williams, a horticulture specialist and agent with the Moore County Cooperative Extension Service, is taking the cold snap very seriously.
Williams says growers are wise to use sprinkler systems to protect early blooms and tender berries. He said they probably should have set up irrigation systems by Thursday and continue through Sunday.
"It is a big problem for strawberry producers. Strawberries are growing and blooming right now," Williams says.
When temperatures drop into the low 30s, he said growers should set up their frost protection measures.
Sprinklers are the most common frost protection method used by professional growers in Moore County. Williams said the other method is the use of row covers.
Williams recommended that home gardeners cover any tender plants already placed in the ground. He said gardeners who have already planted such flowers as impatiens and petunias should be prepared to cover the plants, or else get ready to plant a new crop next week.
Covers can be bushel baskets, newspaper tents or paper bags, but Williams said plastic sheets should not be used. He said the protection should be a material that traps heat from the soil, blocks light but allows air movement.
As for peaches, Williams said this is the most vulnerable stage of peach development because the time immediately follows what he calls "fruit set." Peaches are in the shuck/split/shuck-off stage, when the old flower is dropping off and the young fruit is just beginning to develop.
When temperatures hover at 28 degrees, it is time for possible damage to the peach crop.
Nevertheless, Williams is optimistic that Sandhills peaches will be abundant again this year and that growers will be on top of the problem.
"We expect to have peaches this year," he said. "Growers are doing a very good job."
Williams said growers are using wind machines to keep air circulating in orchards, thus warding off the worst freeze damage. Another good practice is their choice of good varieties that are better able to resist cold weather.
"Contender and China Pearl are good examples," he said. "They are absolutely fabulous peaches."
Williams called April 5 the frost date, the time when growers normally figure that their crops are safe. Now with temperatures aiming toward 28 and 29 degrees, he said it's time "to keep our fingers crossed."
Those are the magic numbers.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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