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Buds and bloom: Warm weather means early growth, fears of freeze

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Unseasonably warm temperatures may have folks out enjoying sunshine and blue skies, but local farmers are holding their breath.

Amie and Tommy Baudoin, owners and operators of Morgan Ridge, say they have had a lot of traffic through their Gold Hill vineyard and Salisbury brewery thanks to the weather, but they feel like it’s just a matter of time before their fortunes change.

“We feel like we’re doomed,” Tommy said. “Like we’re going to be paying for it later.”

Last year, an early spring stirred sap and opened buds, only for temperatures to plummet in late April, devastating many fruit crops. Amy-Lynn Albertson, Rowan County director of the Cooperative Extension service, said the 2016 “freeze event” killed off the county’s peach crop.

Morgan Ridge pulled through last year thanks to a blower warming the air around its vines. But it’s not the first time the Baudoins have had a scare.

“We’ve experienced this type of weather in 2007, so we’re having a little freakout,” Amie said.

According to Albertson, an early spring in 2007 caused fruit crops to flourish, only for an Easter weekend frost to nip yields in the bud. Albertson said the two-day freeze hurt peaches, blackberries, blueberries and apples. For the Baudoins, the 2007 freeze damaged grape vines as well as fruit, damaging more than three years worth of work and affecting the vineyard for several years afterward.

“So that was a year in the hole for us,” Amie said.

 

Albertson estimates that the warm weather has put fruit and other crops almost four weeks ahead of schedule. Peach trees and blueberry bushes have started budding, and some strawberry plants are already starting to produce fruit — putting local growers on target for a March or early April harvest. Typically, Albertson said, the fruit isn’t ripe until around Mother’s Day.

“We’re not supposed to be harvesting strawberries at the end of March,” she said.

But the prospect of an early harvest has local strawberry giant Patterson Farms optimistic.

Doug Patterson, vice president of the family-owned farm, said that if the weather keeps an even keel, it’s shaping up to be a “great summer.”

“We should have strawberries around the first of April,” he said.

The farm had a similarly early crop last year, thanks to a mild late winter. But strawberries are one of the few fruits that can be well protected against cold snaps. As long as temperatures don’t dip below about 30 degrees, this year’s strawberry crop should be fine.

“Everything’s just going a little bit early,” he said.

But some farmers may not be so lucky. Blueberries, blackberries, peaches and grapes are more difficult to save from frost or freeze.

“A cold event is going to be pretty damaging,” Albertson said.

North Carolina’s official “frost free date” — based on a 30-year average — is April 15, more than a month away. The date is one reason Cooperative Extension doesn’t recommend planting vegetable crops until May 1, though Albertson said she has already seen a few stores selling tomatoes.

Extended forecasts call for warm temperatures for the next 30 days, but Albertson said she doesn’t put much stock in predictions more than two weeks out. Should the weather stay warm, crops will scrape by. But if the temperature dips into the 20s or teens, “There’s nothing you can do,” she said. “So it’s just a loss. That’s part of farming; that’s part of growing plants and agriculture.”

The Baudoins are waiting with fingers crossed. The vines are older now, so there’s not much fear that the plants will be burned back by frost. There are other concerns, however. The warm weather has caused the sap in the vines to run, and if there’s a freeze it could splinter the wood, Tommy said. But it if the temperature can stay above 30 for the next month or so, the vineyard should be fine.

“We’re watching the forecast,” he said.

While farmers are often advised to expect to lose their entire crop at least once every 10 years, Albertson said, a freeze can still be “very devastating economically.”

“You cannot control Mother Nature, …” Albertson said. “Farmers are some of the biggest risk takers you’ll ever see.”

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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