March 14, 2017
With temperatures across much of Alabama expected to plummet to the mid-20s this week, farmers are busy trying to protect tender plants from the cold.
Early-season crops like strawberries and early-blooming crops like blueberries and peaches are most susceptible to the cold, said Morgan County’s Mike Reeves, whose family owns Reeves’ Peach Farm.
“This year’s strawberries are a couple of weeks ahead of schedule and already have small fruit and blooms,” said Reeves, who is Morgan County’s Extension System coordinator. “Strawberry growers will cover their rows (with a polyester material), which will add 7-10 degrees of heat for protection and help prevent damage.”
Temperatures in north Alabama are expected to dip to 23 degrees and climb to just 43 degrees Wednesday. In south Mobile County temperatures are expected to drop to the mid-30s tonight and Wednesday.
While the cold could damage existing strawberry blooms, surviving plants will make new blooms. The cold could push back harvest as much as a month, which concerns sisters Cassie Young and Allie Corcoran, owners of Backyard Orchards in Russell County, where temperatures are expected to reach the high-20s Wednesday night.
Their 30,000 strawberry plants cover 3 acres. The siblings were slated to open their u-pick patch this weekend, and several schools have already booked berry-picking field trips.
While strawberries might take an initial hit, Reeves is optimistic about the frost’s effect on peach production.
“Peach trees only need about 10 percent of their buds to produce a peach crop,” Reeves said. The abundance of peach varieties and their bloom times across Alabama should reduce loss, he added.
Lee County’s Beth and Josh Hornsby have 2.5 acres of plants in the ground. They’re working feverishly to ensure seedlings and mature plants survive the spring cold snap.
“A lot of our plants in the ground are cool-weather vegetables, but when the temperature is below 25 degrees, the cold burns the leaves,” Beth said. “Then we either clip the leaves and hope they survive or lose the plant all together.”
While most of their seedlings are a hoophouse or temperature-controlled barn, the Hornsbys are insulating mature plants and recent transplants with inverted plastic pots.
South Alabama farmers are trying to save early cantaloupes and tomatoes by placing sheeting over raised beds on their farms.
The Alabama Farmers Federation’s Mac Higginbotham said producers won’t know the cold spell’s effects until Thursday or Friday.
“Farmers do everything they can to make a crop by providing good soil and water and buying the best seeds and plants,” said Higginbotham, the Federation’s Horticulture Division director. “The one thing they can’t control is Mother Nature. This time of year is always unpredictable for our fruit and vegetable farmers.”
Alabama farmers are also feeding cattle extra hay for energy and burning more fuel to heat poultry houses to combat low temperatures.