Warm weather endangers strawberry and peach crops

Simeon Ogburn woke up at 3 a.m. Monday to do something he seldom does this time of year: protect his strawberries from frost.

In most years, frost in late February would not pose a threat to strawberries because they would not have bloomed yet. But unseasonably warm weather this year means most berries are 3 to 3 1/2 weeks ahead of schedule. That makes protecting the open blooms and green fruit from frost essential to ensure there will be plump, red berries this spring, said Ogburn, who owns Ogburn Berries and Produce in Willow Spring, east of Fuquay-Varina.

“The plants are just reacting to the weather,” said Ogburn, who ran overhead irrigation to protect his 2 acres of berries from sub-freezing temperatures. “This is the first season we’ve had in awhile that has been this warm, but it’s not the craziest thing in the world.”

January was 5.6 degrees warmer than is average, and February has been about 8.5 degrees warmer, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Moneypenny. Counting Tuesday, there have been 13 days when the high temperature exceeded 70 degrees in February, a month when the average high temperatures are in the 50s. March will begin Wednesday with temperatures approaching 80.

Strawberry farmers across the region have experienced the same worries as Ogburn, said Don Nicholson, a regional agronomist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, and the threat from cold weather isn’t passed. Forecasters expect lows to dip near or below freezing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“I’m afraid the strawberry farmers have been hard hit by the last couple of colder nights,” Nicholson said. “Looking at the weather for this week, it looks like there will be some more cold nights that won’t be good for them.”

Moneypenny said Saturday could be the worst, with temperatures dropping into the mid-20s Saturday morning, likely creating pockets of frost.

“Saturday morning is really going to be the critical morning,” said Moneypenny, noting that most damage to fruits occurs when temperatures remain below 28 degrees for several hours.

Nicholson, whose region includes Wake, Harnett, Johnston, Wayne and Wilson counties, said farmers hoping to protect their berries from frost generally have two options: row covers or overhead irrigation. The irrigation systems sprinkle water that forms ice on the berries, which Nicholson said acts as a sort of “protective barrier” from the frost until it is washed off.

Berries are usually picked starting in mid-April, Nicholson said, but this year’s strawberry harvest will begin in mid-late March.

Nicholson said that although some warm winters in the past had caused strawberries to “wake up on the early side,” this season has been the “most extended period of warm weather” he can remember.

The early timing of the harvest also poses problems for finding labor, said Ogburn, who explained that he employs two full-time strawberry pickers and adds eight or nine others when they get behind on picking. Ogburn said the pickers he usually employs won’t arrive from Mexico until April 1, so he’ll have to find others to fill in for the first couple of weeks of the harvest.

And strawberries aren’t the only fruit blooming early.

Peaches – which ideally bloom in early April – starting blooming at Millstone Creek Orchards 10 days ago, said Beverly Mooney, whose family owns the orchard between Siler City and Ramseur.

“This February has been one for the record books, sadly,” said Mooney, who added that if the frost comes later in the week, it will likely kill her 5 acres of peaches.

She said bigger peach farms can use wind machines to blow frost off the peaches, but smaller farms like hers, where visitors can pick their own apples, peaches and blueberries, don’t have the same resources.

“The peaches are on their own,” she said. “All we can do is pray.”

Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629

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