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Cold front threatens apple, berry crops

Apple, peach and berry growers faced a one-two punch of freezing weather as a cold front charged into the mountains bringing lows in the 30s and possibly the 20s.

"This is a cold front approaching out of the west moving across Tennessee," said Harry Gerapetritis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Greer, South Carolina. "Behind this cold front is really unseasonably cold air for May. We’re going to be flirting with some record lows."

The weather service issued a freeze warning from midnight Friday until 10 a.m. Saturday and a freeze watch overnight Saturday until 10 a.m. Sunday.

"Saturday night is probably going to be colder of the two," he said. It will be windier tonight, which could spare the apple orchards. A southwest wind would pack gusts of up to 30 mph Friday night and early Saturday. 

"The winds will go really light tomorrow night and that should be what allows it to get colder," Gerapetritis said. "With that lighter wind and the clearing skies, that will bring a much higher chance for frost."

Danny McConnell, a Dana farmer who grows strawberries, apples and produce, said he will irrigate his 10 acres to try to freeze protect the plants.

"Around 28 degrees they can actually take it because there's a little sugar in it," he said. He'll start the sprinklers when it reaches 36 degrees and keep going until it warms up. "As the water freezes it gives off heat. The little bit of heat it gives off helps warm the plant." It will help that the pond he draws water from has been heated by a recent run of warm days.

High wind could work to his advantage, too.

"If the wind stays up that will help us keep warm in valleys like we are but it will he colder higher up," he said. McConnell recalled a cold front that posed a very similar threat back in May 1987.

Although the forecast called for a low around 34 Friday night, growers in the apple country know from experience that actual lows, and crop damage, varies widely based on elevation, wind, slope direction and other factors.

Saturday should be high, with a high near 57 and north northwest wind 9 to 13 mph, with gusts as high as 18 mph. The forecast Saturday night is for a low of 33 with a north northwest wind around 6 mph. Sunday will be sunny, with a high near 64, the NWS said.