NC Fruit Growers Take Stock Of Losses From Recent Cold Snap

NC Fruit Growers Take Stock Of Losses From Recent Cold Snap

3:52pm Mar 27, 2017
The Crossnore School & Children's Home in Winston-Salem covered their pick-your-own strawberry fields to protect against the cold. DAVID FORD/WFDD

Agriculture officials are calling the cold snap earlier this month the most damaging that fruit farmers in the Southeast have experienced since the 2007 Easter freeze that led to a $1-billion crop loss.

Since then, scientists have been working with farmers to develop better methods to protect their crops against the cold. This year, that challenge was made more difficult by an unseasonably warm February which led to early flowering of fruit crops like strawberries and blueberries.

North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Brian Long says the warm weather left young plants more vulnerable to the bitter cold and put their new protection methods to the test.

“It’s not great news,” says Long. “One thing we do know is that the peach crop in the state really got hammered by this freezing weather. And strawberries that were protected using water to create that protective coating seemed to be faring okay.”

Long says another measure — covering strawberries with plastic and protective fabric — fared worse. The strong winds blew the covers into the plants repeatedly, battering the fruit.

“When you start talking about the number of sub-freezing nights that we’ve had and the repeated use of those covers, they can over time become less helpful, and some growers are seeing those negative impacts,” says Long. “Depending on where a plant is in its development, one really cold night can do bad damage, but three nights in a row of temperatures in the high teens or the low twenties, when plants are at the growth stage that they are, that’s a nightmare scenario.”  

Long adds it may be several weeks before we know the full extent of the damage to the state’s strawberry crop. North Carolina has the third largest commercial strawberry industry in the U.S., worth roughly $25-million in 2015. The state leads the nation in pick-your-owns, where the fruit is sold directly to customers at local stands.

He cautions that local farmers aren’t out of the woods yet. Late freezes are not uncommon in the Piedmont. One strong freeze in early April and your next strawberry purchase may not be marked “Grown in North Carolina.”

 

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