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Freeze threatens peaches, early apples, berries

A late winter cold blast could bring up to 3 inches of snow this weekend and — worse news than that for apple and berry farmers — sustained lows in the 20s that could wipe out peaches and early apple varieties and damage strawberries, blackberries and blueberries.

Lows tonight were expected to fall to 27 degrees followed by even colder overnight lows through Thursday. The forecast called for an 80 percent chance of snow and 1 to 3 inches of accumulation Saturday night and Sunday. Low temperatures could fall to 20 degrees Tuesday night and 22 Wednesday night, cold enough to kill young buds coaxed into early blooming by weeks of springlike temperatures.

"It's going to be rough," said meteorologist Harry Gerapetritis of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C. "It's going to be a shock after all the warm weather we've had."

An arctic cold front moving across the Plains will settle across the mid-Atlantic this weekend, bringing a January-like deep freeze that we didn't have in January. The National Weather Service called for a 30 percent chance of rain Saturday, turning to snow tonight, with 1 to 3 inches of accumulation. Lows were expected to drop to 27 tonight then just get colder — 21 Tuesday night and 20 overnight Wednesday.

"My biggest hope is that they've missed the forecast on how cold it will get," Kenny Barnwell, who grows apples and peaches in Edneyville, said Friday. "It will take out all of the peaches. There will not be any peaches in this county and it will damage a lot of the apples. If it gets down to 21 a lot of the early varieties will really take a beating."

The most vulnerable are early bloomers like Galas, Red Delicious and Granny Smith. Barnwell said Henderson County typically sees wide variations in apple damage from early freezes based on location, elevation, wind and other factors.

"Some of the late blooming varieties are tight enough (in their buds) to survive it," he said. "I've seen some Romes that are really tight. It's going to be site specific. It'll be a greatly reduced crop if it gets down to 21."

Barnwell and the county's other growers have suffered peach crop losses to frost far more often than apple losses. Frosts or freezes have killed his peach crop about every other year, Barnwell said, making that fruit a losing proposition. "I've got about 5 acres and after this year I probably won't have any," he said. "I've already pushed half of them and I've already ordered apple trees to plant in their place."

A hard freeze that takes out some of the early varieties is not unusual. Often a cold snap in April or even early May will kill apple blossoms that are much more vulnerable than this stage. Henderson County's apple crop suffered spotty damage from an April 9 frost in 2016. More widespread wipeouts occured in the Easter freeze of 2008 and an April 10-11 freeze of 2012.

Strawberry growers will cover their plants with protective blankets, said Karen Blaedow, a small fruit specialist with the Henderson County Cooperative Extension Service.

"Growers are using row covers for the strawberries so hopefully that will be enough of a buffer so it won't be a total loss," she said. Blueberries buds appear to be tight enough to withstand the freeze, she added,  but blackberries could suffer leaf burn or freeze damage that kills the crop.