Fruit farmers in Northeast brace for frigid temps

5:31 PM, Apr 27, 2012   |    comments
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HARTFORD, Connecticut - It has become a familiar but frustrating drill for farmers in the Northeast.

With temperatures expected to fall below freezing, they spent Friday preparing orchard heaters, irrigation systems and frost alarms to protect fruit crops that blossomed early and are particularly vulnerable to the elements. While the predicted low early Saturday is not unusual for late April, farmers say fruit crops are as many as three weeks ahead of schedule due to a March warm spell.

That has led to some sleepless April nights. Don Preli, the owner of Belltown Hill Orchards in Glastonbury, Conn., said he rolled out anti-frost measures about eight times in the last month to protect his strawberries, blueberries and other fruit that typically do not blossom until early May. It costs him about $1,000 an hour to operate the equipment, including wind machines designed to keep cold air from settling around crops. "We've had to do it so often this year it's getting to be a really big burden," Preli said.

Some farmers said the forecast of low temperatures in the mid-20s for Friday night posed the biggest threat yet for crop damage. The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for parts of several New England states, much of New York and Pennsylvania and sections of Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Forecasters urged measures to protect tender vegetation.

"This is by far going to be the scariest night of the year," said Rick Macsuga, a marketing representative for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. "There are going to be a lot farmers up late or all night tonight." In Vermont, warnings were issued for areas where vegetation is ahead of schedule, said Andy Nash, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Burlington. "I think we are going to be into the range potentially, if the forecast works out, where that potential kill rate is going to be really high," Nash said.

"That's going to have a long-term impact." Barney Hodges, a third-generation apple producer whose family has been in Cornwall, in Vermont's Champlain valley, for the last 40 years, said apples on his 200-acre orchard are sure to suffer damage during the cold weekend. Even if the blooms survive the cold, they could produce discolored fruit at the end of the season.

Another challenge from the early spring is the crop could be ready in late August rather than early September, before the apples have had a chance to turn red, which makes them less appealing to buyers, Hodges said. "Weather is volatile, it's always a problem. If you're in farming and can't handle the weather you shouldn't be in farming," Hodges said. Famers have only so many ways to protect their crops from the cold. Eric Brown, a seventh-generation grower at Brown's Berry Patch in western New York, said he'll use overhead irrigation to protect berry bushes.

For his fruit trees, already damaged by several cold nights, there's nothing he can do but wait. "We're going to ultimately take it on the chin," said Brown, whose farm in Waterport has been in the family more than 200 years. Fans can, in the right weather conditions, draw warmer air down to shield plants. "That'll get you a couple degrees, but when it's 20 degrees, it's 20 degrees," he said. "You're not going to warm that up." Andrew Martin, who grows apples, pears and peaches at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Mass., said he expects the danger to pass by Monday night.

In the meantime, he said he will be watching the forecast and "hoping and praying that it stays on the warm side." In Connecticut, a freeze that brought temperatures down to the high 20s one night in early April damaged peach crops, but so far the effects of the cold have been limited.

Agriculture officials say the trees are acclimated to conditions somewhat from the recent pattern of mild days and cool nights, but the advanced blossoming of many fruit plants makes them extremely vulnerable this weekend. Don Dzen, an owner of Dzen Brothers Farm in South Windsor, Conn., said he was planning to stay up all night, keeping water running over his berries in hopes that a coating of ice will prevent damage to the fruit. "It will be a long night, but we should be in pretty good shape," he said.

By MICHAEL MELIA Associated Press

The Associated Press

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