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Growers brace for loss as second night of freeze looms

Apple growers across Henderson County are bracing for bad news this Easter weekend as a cold snap threatens this year's crop.

Orchard thermometers recorded temperatures as low as 21 overnight Thursday night, a potentially crop-decimating hard freeze, and close to the same was expected early Saturday.

"They're saying it's supposed to be a degree or two warmer but the wind last night kept everything from frosting," Jerred Nix, an apple farmer in the Bearwallow community, said Friday afternoon. "It's pretty calm right now. Who knows what's going to happen. We were at 23 this morning. The lowest I heard on top of Sugarloaf it got to 21."

Nix said it's possible that the one-two punch of freezing weather could wipe out most of the young apples. He stands to lose "probably half or a little more, every bit of half, might even be pushing 70 percent," although he added that "it's way too early to be jumping to conclusions."

Henderson County growers have found that spring holidays and a budding apple crop are a bad mix. Easter freezes caused major crop loss in 2007 and 2012 and last year a Mothers Day cold snap cut yields. Although this year did not bring a stretch of spring-like days in February like in 2012, a few warm days in March were enough to nudge the young buds to a vulnerable place.

"Last week brought a lot of stuff on," Nix said, "and even the week before when we had those pretty 70-degree days, stuff was a'movin."

Like Nix, Henderson County Agriculture Extension Service Director Terry Kelley cautioned that the extent of damage can't be assessed for several days.

"It's a little early to see too much what's going on until after tonight," he said Friday. "It got anywhere from 21 up on Sugarloaf. Some people have as high as 26. With temperatures like that you certainly can expect to see some level of damage. Of course, it depends on the variety. Some are a little further out than others. A few varieties were already at pink."

"The wind wasn't that much of a factor, as cold as it was," he said. "Looking at some (light) frost, the wind might have helped us out." With lows close to 20, "it wasn't a real mitigating factor for us."

Early blooming varieties are the most vulnerable to spring freezes; late bloomers like romes are more likely to survive because they're still tightly wrapped. Elevation of the orchard, slope orientation, wind and other factors can all influence crop damage.

"It just depends on a lot," Kelley said. "We won't know until we start picking blooms and looking at them." Given the low temperatures early Friday and a repeat early Saturday, Kelley said crop loss between 30 and 75 percent is possible. "I'm just speculating right now. But we do know with temperatures that low that's the kind of loss range that you can possibly see."

Among the early varieties most likely to be in the pink stage are some of the most popular varieties: gala, honeycrisp and fujis. "Grannies are starting to bloom a little bit," Kelley said. Last year, apple trees bloomed early after a warm winter.

"I would say we're in better shape than we were this time last year (in how far along the crop was) but we didn't get this kind of weather this time last year," he said. "This year, it was more the normal and things were held back a little bit. We did have some mid 60s and some bright sunny days (last week) so things were pushed along a little bit."

Other crops are vulnerable, too. Strawberry growers are able to cover the plants. Blueberries, blackberries and grapes are also at risk.

"Apples are in so many different stages," Nix said. "You got some that are in pink, some that's pre-pink. You got some that's tight cluster and some that's just breaking bud. It's not like they're all at one stage. Every variety is different."

A few days from now, under a blue sky in temperatures forecast to be 40 degrees warmer, Jerred and his dad, Jeff, will slice into the young fruit and behold the prospects for the 2021 crop.

"We'll know more the first or middle of the week," he said. "We'll just go through and pinch buds and then cut 'em with a pocketknife. If they're brown on the inside they're dead and if they're green they're alive."