Frost may have damaged apple crop

Brad Hicks • Apr 13, 2012 at 8:37 AM

While it may be several days before area apple growers will see the full extent, they are anticipating damage to their crops due to Thursday’s overnight frost.

Ty Petty, Unicoi County University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension agent, said Thursday afternoon that earlier in the day he visited a small apple orchard to evaluate the freeze damage to the crop. He said the fruit crop is ahead of schedule because of warmer-than-usual temperatures during the late winter and early spring. He also said the majority of the county’s apple trees are in bloom, which is the worst time for a freezing to occur.

As temperatures fall below 32 degrees and into the mid-20s, damage to fruit crops becomes more prevalent, Petty said. Thursday morning temperatures fell into the 20s, Petty said, and the frost marked the first in several weeks and the first since most apple trees began their bloom.

“Right now, most of the apple trees in Unicoi County are in full bloom or have made it through the bloom already,” Petty said. “The bloom is the time period when the apple trees are the most susceptible to cold temperature damage.”

David Moore, who owns Heavenly Holler Farm, a self-pick orchard in the Flag Pond area, said it is now a matter of area apple growers keeping an eye on the trees’ flowers to see if they begin to turn black and drop off trees. He said around one-third of the apple trees in his orchard were in the middle of the bloom.

“Last night was pretty chilly, but I won’t know until I see the damage that actually occurred to the flower,” Moore said. “ ... If by this weekend I see the petals dropping and fruit not setting then I’ll know what the impact was.”

Michael Willis, who owns Willis Orchard in the Coffee Ridge area, described Thursday’s frost as a “killer freeze.” Like Moore, Willis said it could be several days before he sees the toll the frost took on his orchard.

“But I’d say, as of right now, it really hurt and hurt bad,” he said.

Most of Willis’ trees were in full bloom as morning temperatures dropped to around 25 degrees. He said a frost that occurred several weeks ago did kill some of the crop, but most trees had not yet started blooming. He is anticipating the effects of Thursday’s frost to be much more severe.

“It may have got half, it may have got three-quarters, it may have got all of them,” he said of Thursday’s frost. “That’s about as hard a freeze as I’ve saw.”

On an average year, an apple tree can produce a full crop on around 10 percent of its bloom, Petty said.

“So as long as some of the flowers are not damaged or some of the fruit has already made it through the blooming period, we can still have a pretty good apple crop,” he said. “It might be reduced, but I think we’re going to have some apples make it through this. Over the coming weeks, we’ll know how much damage we had.”

It appears that the strawberry and blueberry crop at Scott’s Strawberry and Tomato Farm was spared from Thursday’s overnight frost, despite temperatures in the strawberry field falling into the lower 20s. Fran Scott with Scott’s Farm said overhead irrigation was effective in protecting the strawberry crop.

“They irrigated all night long were able to protect them,” she said.

Irrigation is also an effective method for protected tree-grown fruit. However, Willis said this is an impossibility for growers operating apple orchards on a smaller scale.

“It would take millions of gallons of water to get enough on there to help them, and we just don’t have the capability,” he said.

Petty said overnight freezings are a concern going forward for local growers, as the average date of the final annual frost is around May 10. But Willis said this comes with the territory.

“We’re at the mercy of the weather, we are,” he said. “But that’s farming.”

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