As weather forecasters caution about a late-week freeze, many of North Carolina’s strawberry and blueberry farmers are still trying to assess how much of a bite last week’s cold spell took out of their crops.
Strawberry farmers waited until early this week to roll back covers they placed over their fields to protect their early bloomers from disastrous nips by the cold.
Blueberry farmers have been selecting fruit from their early-blooming bushes, slicing a knife through some of the tiny berries with hopes of seeing a green center, not brown, as a sign of fortunes to come.
“We’ve had significant damage to the early ripening blueberries, but it’s too early to tell for the later-ripening varieties,” said Bill Cline, a blueberry specialist at N.C. State University’s Cooperative Extension, an agricultural science hub for farmers across the state.
Temperatures last week plummeted into the 20s on March 15 and 16, with winds whipping in the early part of the late-winter freeze. Though mid-March freezes are not atypical in North Carolina, winter here was unusually mild.
The abnormally warm January and February meant some farmers were seeing blooms three weeks ahead of more normal seasons.
Agriculture extension agents liken the recent weather patterns to those of 2007, when March was unseasonably warm and berry crops that had come out early that year suffered tremendously from an Easter cold snap on April 6 and 7.
The 2007 Easter freeze destroyed 90 percent of South Carolina's peaches and caused close to $1 billion in crop damage across the region.
Barclay Poling, a former N.C. State University professor and extension specialist whose expertise is strawberries and muscadine grapes, echoed Cline’s message that it’s too early to know the extent of damage that strawberry growers suffered from the windy chill last week. In the decade since the 2007 Easter freeze, agriculture scientists have worked with farmers to develop methods to better protect their acres of strawberries from the early blooming in “fake springs” and intermittent freezes.
To stave off devastating losses, strawberry farmers worked late into the night and early morning last week to put down at least one layer of covering and sometimes several swaths of fabric or plastic. Some used sprinkler irrigation to try to keep the temperature right at the freezing mark. If blossom temperatures stay at 31 or 32, close to the freezing point, the plants have a better chance of producing fruit, Poling said. But if they drop to 28 degrees, that can be problematic.
Darin Jones, the owner of DJ’s Berry Patch in Apex, said his sprinkler heads froze last week during the deep freeze. Though he lost some of the strawberries he had covered, he was optimistic about salvaging more.
“It’ll be several weeks before I know,” Jones said.
Farmers have not tried covering blueberries in the same manner as they do the low-growing strawberries, Poling pointed out, because of the different structures of the plants.
Blueberries grow on bushes that can get up to 10-feet tall. Not only is it difficult to drape covers over them, they would have to be staked to the ground so heat could not escape.
Cline said farmers and agriculture extension agents always are looking for new ways to protect berry crops from unusual weather, and one thing blueberry farmers have been considering is whether to plant varieties that tend to bloom earlier, particularly if climatologists predict that weather patterns of 2017 will continue in years to come.
Many blueberry farmers have relied heavily on the Star Blueberry, which typically bears fruit in Eastern North Carolina by early May. But there are later blooming varieties that typically bloom later and could withstand an early spring.
“This may lead us to reconsider the variety we grow,” Cline said.