Breath-Holding Time

The perils of a warm winter and protecting tender plants

By Jan Leitschuh

March, they say, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. But spend a few springs in the Sandhills, and you’ll learn that’s not always true. These are the days that give local farmers pause.

Sometimes a Sandhills March is as soft as a calico kitten. Then, having playfully coaxed the spring-blooming fruits out of their winter dormancy . . . whammo! A late, hard frost slashes vulnerable blossoms and blackens infant fruits. Thought it was spring? April Fools!

Who doesn’t love farm-fresh Sandhills produce? Juicy peaches, tender Sandhills strawberries, sweet blueberries, fall apples? While most of us won’t set out garden plants till mid-April, area fruit producers are “planted.” Our growers hold their collective breath from mid-March to the first two weeks of April, dreading a killing frost. The future of their 2018 crops depends on their ability to thwart the cold.

And yet, “It’s not the cold that we’re worried about so much,” says John Blue of Highlanders Farm, a seventh-generation heritage farm on Highway 22 in Carthage.

“It’s not the cold,” agrees peach and apple producer Ken Chappell of Eagle Springs. “There are peaches that can withstand minus 15 degrees, and produce fruit as far north as Canada.” Plants have a winter-protective mechanism called dormancy. It allows them to withstand bitter, low temperatures. Lengthening days and warm sun awaken the plant to a new season. It shoots out blooms and tender new growth.

It’s when Sleeping Beauty awakens that things get tricky. Timing is everything in fruit production.

“The warm winters of the last couple of years have broken dormancy early,” says Blue. When that happens, the fruit producer has to be super-vigilant in protecting the vulnerable new growth. That can mean extra labor and long, exhausting — even wet — nights until the last frost date has passed.

It’s not unusual to get those late March and early April frosts, but with a warm winter, strawberries and other fruits will bloom early. The plant itself can take a lot of cold, but the blooms are fragile and more prone to freeze than the plant. “When the strawberries bloom in February or even January, they’re just too advanced to hold,” says Blue.

Highlanders Farm grows roughly three acres of strawberries for the pick-your-own market, their own farm stands, value-added ice creams and jams and for the Sandhills Farm to Table produce boxes. Strawberries are a high-value crop per acre, but they are costly to install and maintain — and, potentially, lose.

Damaged blooms mean less fruit so it’s rough on the bottom line. Besides reduced yield, frost kills deliver another economic whammy. “If blooms get damaged we need to pull them off the plant to reduce disease potential,” says Blue. “So, you have time and another labor expense for cleanup.”

For those with pick-your-own fields and farm stands, weird weather can spin the calendar a bit. Mother’s Day is the typical peak of strawberry season. “Some of these strange years throw the picking off,” says Blue. “In a strange year it’s probably peaking a week or two early.”

Luckily, strawberry farmers have a few tricks up their sleeves to hang on to future strawberry shortcakes. Most Sandhills producers use white row covers for frost protection. These spun
poly fabric strips  “get you about five-seven degrees of protection,” says Blue. “You can
use a heavier one, but it lets in less sunlight,” also needed for plant health. Still, “most people are going to a heavier one after the last several years.” Cue the on-and-off row cover dance
on especially warm days. Wind makes the
process even more exciting.

Sprinklers can also protect blooms when temps plunge. Paradoxically, an ice encasement holds tender blossoms safely.  But the intervention takes a lot of water. “Once you start, you don’t want to cut it off until the temperature comes up,” says Blue. “It’s nerve-racking, you can’t risk a machinery breakdown. Last year some were running 12 hours a day for a week or so.”

Eagles Nest Blueberry Farm in Jackson Springs was one farm that used water to protect blueberry and blackberry crops last April.
“The  Southern highbush blueberries are a
little bit hardier than the rabbiteyes, but they also bloom earlier, and sometimes we lose those,” says producer Karyn Ring.  “This year, we’ve already reached our chill hours (the required number of cold temps to set a crop) and they are ready to bloom in early March.
In 2007, with that April freeze, we lost everything — blueberries and blackberries. Since 2007, there’s been a 50-50 chance you’re going to lose 50 percent of your crop.”

This year, Eagles Nest is experimenting with row covers for its blueberries. “We won’t do it on all three acres of the berries,” says Ring. “We’ll try them on the Southern highbush, and attempt to cover one row of two rabbiteye varieties just to see — no point in buying all this fabric if it doesn’t work. “

Chappell Orchards also deploys protective strategies — wind machines. “We have four,” says Chappell, who grows 35 acres of peaches and six  of apples, “but they are only protective when the air is still. Then you can warm four
to five degrees. “

The first two weeks in April “is when we get our damage,” says Chappell. “Last year, it was late March due to early bloom. Two years ago, we managed a third of a crop of peaches, but the apples were damaged. Apples have five seeds, but some got only one due to poor pollination.”

Ah yes, the bees don’t like to fly in cold, wet and windy weather. Toss in another challenge for Sandhills fruit.

And it’s not just fruit. Billy Carter of Eagle Springs likes to roll the dice on a March 10 planting of a cold-hardy variety of sweet corn, planting a heat-loving crop very early to capture the late spring craving for sweet corn.

“It’s a gamble, and the largest portion of the time you’ll make it,” he says. Three years ago, that first planting got wiped out in an April 10 freeze. “The corn is not inexpensive to lose, but you’re making eight to ten successive plantings,” he notes. “With strawberries, you have so much more in that one planting. Corn costs you $125 an acre at that point, where strawberries are a $10,000 investment.”

Not until tax day do area fruit producers let their breath out. “If there’s no freezing weather in sight by April 15, then I feel pretty confident we have that crop of peaches,” says Chappell. “So the first two weeks of April are critical.”

You can fight, but ultimately only do so much. “At a certain point,” says Blue with a rueful laugh, “you just have to go with what’s happening.”

Here’s hoping!  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

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