Mid-April freeze threatens fruit trees

Staff and wire reportsApril 14, 2014 

The winter that just won't quit has one more punch for the Midwest -- a cold front bringing a brief return to sub-freezing weather and possibly snow showers, creating concerns for growers of apples, peaches, grapes and other fruit.

Temperatures in the 70s and 80s in recent days gave way to highs in the 40s and upper 30s Monday, with even colder temperatures on the way. The National Weather Service issued freeze warnings for parts of six states -- Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois.

The weather service projected low temperatures Monday night and again Tuesday night in the mid- to upper-20s in parts of Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. That could damage peach and apple crops, even grapes for wineries.

"We'll be close to record lows," National Weather Service meteorologist Jayson Gosselin said, predicting the coldest overnight lows in some Missouri and Illinois communities since 1928.

The extreme cold isn't expected to last -- by midweek, temperatures are expected to be back to close to normal. Still, all it takes is a few hours of temperatures in the 20s to damage an apple or peach crop.

The one saving grace this year could be, ironically, the unusually brutal winter. The cold weather this year lingered throughout March in many Midwestern states, causing many fruit trees to bloom late.

Chris Eckert with Eckert's Orchard said his concern is with the local strawberry crop. Eckert is president of Eckert's Inc., which has farms in Belleville, Millstadt and Grafton.

Workers are prepping an irrigation system that can spray water over the strawberries to prevent freeze damage to the crop, Eckert explained.

"Our plan is to get the irrigation system ready today and be back at work around 3 o'clock this morning to monitor temperatures," Eckert said. "If the temperature gets around 32 degrees or below, we will make sure the system runs tonight."

People with sensitive plants outside are encouraged to bring them inside if possible.

Because many apple trees haven't yet bloomed, they may escape damage, said Patrick Byers, a Springfield, Mo.-based horticulture specialist for the University of Missouri Extension Service.

Byers recalled the last time Missouri saw a mid-April freeze, in 2007.

"It was devastating in 2007 because the fruit crops were well advanced," Byers said. "This freeze will be a problem but it won't be as devastating for apple growers, blueberry growers, blackberry and raspberry growers."

It was still cause for concern for Tom Range, owner of Braeutigam Orchards near Belleville. Range's orchards include a variety of fruits -- 1,200 apple trees, 1,000 peach trees, along with plums, blackberries, blueberries, cherries and others.

"I am concerned," Range said. "We're going to be in that danger zone."

Several below-zero days in the winter took a toll on peach buds at Range's farm -- he was already projecting a 50-percent loss of peaches even before the latest cold snap. Apples are hardier, he said, but he worries that if temperatures get as low as predicted, he'll lose some of his apple crop, too.

"We're expecting to take a big hit," Range said.

In northeast Missouri, Sandy Binder's 800-tree apple orchard looked like it would be OK. Her plum trees were another matter.

"My apple trees aren't blooming yet but my plum trees are, which means I won't have any plums this year," Binder said. Still, she feels lucky.

"Another couple of warm days and those apple trees would have opened up," she said.

Grapes aren't as far along as other fruit crops, but Byers said the cold could damage the young, developing buds. Texas ranks sixth among states with the most wineries, Missouri 10th and Illinois 11th, according to WineAmerica.

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the average high temperature for April 14 in the St. Louis area is 67. But, as cool as things are, it could be worse. The all-time record for low high temperature on this date is 28 set in 1950. The all-time high, set in 2006, was 92.

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