Early spring has orchard growers bracing

Associate Editor

(March 7, 2017) These days, Dwight Baugher talks about the weather as if it were an out-of-control child in a dining room.
If he could reach out and grab it to hold it in place, he would.
“Now, if it’s going to be warm, I want it to stay warm,” the peach farmer, owner of Baugher’s Orchard in Westminster, Md., said last week.
He may have no such luck, setting him up for what he terms “a potential butt-kicking.”
Baugher’s orchard, which grows 75 acres of peaches and 40 acres of cherries, is one of many regional fruit operations on edge after several weeks of unseasonably warm weather.
It can spark early blooming in fruit plants, and a subsequent freezes can kill blossoms, producing no fruit.
Over the last several weeks, temperatures in Delmarva have reached the 70s on multiple occasions during a month when the region often experiences its heaviest snows.
Along much of the East Coast and in cities such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, spring hweather as arrived about a month earlier than the 30-year average and about 20 days earlier than in 2012, which was the earliest spring on record.
Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Phenology Network, which studies seasonal signs, have calculated a local and a national spring index based on observations of lilacs, honeysuckles and temperature records that are fed into a computer model.
The spring leaf index goes back to 1900 and 2012 has been the earliest on record.
But preliminary records show this year ahead of 2012 in a good chunk of the nation. It’s still too early to draw a conclusion for the country, said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee scientist Mark D. Schwartz and phenology network director Jake Weltzin.
But local fruit growers said they see the advancing season.
“We’re three weeks to a month early of what I would call average,” Baugher said. “You say your prayers and hope for the best.”
The consequences, if the region suffers a freeze, can be devastating.
Delaware reported peach crop damage of up to 50 percent last year when the temperature fell well beneath the freezing point on April 5, sending growers into a frenzy.
T.S. Smith & Sons in Bridgeville, Del., flew a helicopter over its crop to disrupt airflow and prevent blossom damage with mixed results.
Hail Bennett in Frankford, Del., said he figured his crop was killed after that freeze, though he ended up with about 40 percent of it in good shape. It’s not something that surprises him; his parents, also growers, lost two crops in a row to freezes in 1989 and 1990.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. But after last year, “it’s something I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to worry about for a while.”
He said he’s hoping for a cold March that hovers in the 50-degree area for the next five to six weeks.
That would help Tom Harlan, who owns a small orchard and Christmas tree farm in Centreville, Md.
He grows a small amount of apricots that are ruined almost every year because they generally bloom earlier than peaches. If the weather managed to stabilize, he might actually have some apricots to sell.
“I think if it stays warm, that’s a plus as far as that particular problem,” he said.
In a worst-case scenario, fruit growers have options. They can set up fans — or helicopters — to disrupt the airflow. Misting machines can also mitigate frost concerns. The Virginia General Assembly recently passed an exemption to the state’s winter burn ban for vineyards and orchards that need to defend against the threat of a freeze, though the measure isn’t effective until next year.
Bennett said he just accepts the unpredictability of his crops.
“Peaches are a fickle crop. It’s a boom-and-bust cycle,” he said. “It should be winter. Unfortunately, it’s not.”
(Editor’s note: The Associated Press contributed to this story.)