Carolinas fruit crops face freeze threat

Fruit growers across the Carolinas ran irrigation systems, covered rows of strawberry plants and mostly watched anxiously Wednesday morning as temperatures dropped near the freezing mark, threatening to deal their crops a devastating blow.

At 7 a.m., temperatures across the region were mostly around 32 to 33 degrees in the immediate Charlotte area and about 30 to 31 degrees in some of the prime fruit-growing areas of Lincoln, Cleveland, Henderson and Cherokee (S.C.) counties.

A freeze warning is in effect until 10 a.m. Wednesday, and another freeze watch is posted for Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Temperatures on Thursday morning are forecast to be about as cold as this morning.

“We’ve done what we can,” said Sam Hall, of Bush-n-vine Farm in York, S.C. “Everything else is in the Lord’s hand.”

The cold air surge has caused frost and freeze warnings across a vast portion of the United States, stretching from Texas and Oklahoma to the East Coast.

Agriculture officials said apple, peach and strawberry crops in the Carolinas are at risk of damage from the cold weather Wednesday and Thursday mornings. The cold also would damage any tender vegetation planted in home gardens, forecasters said.

The record low Wednesday in Charlotte is 29 degrees, set in 2008. The coldest so far this morning at Charlotte Douglas International Airport has been a reading of 33 degrees.

Fruit growers said 28 degrees is usually a key point, with temperatures at or below that level for a few hours can cause damage. A check of automated weather stations across the region at 7 a.m. showed only a handful of locations with temperatures in that range. Those included 29 degrees in Shelby, 28 in Lincolnton and 27 at a station near Cherryville.

Forecasters had predicted breezy conditions overnight, but Tuesday evening’s gusty winds abated. For much of the night, conditions were relatively calm.

“Windborne freeze can be a real problem,” said Jeff Crotts, who grows apples, peaches and strawberries at Knob Creek Farms, about 15 miles west of Lincolnton. “The wind and the cold can do a lot of damage.”

Hall, Crotts and Lauren Anderson at Spring Farm in Fort Mill each said their strawberry plants can be protected against the cold. But buffering buds and developing fruit on trees is a different story.

“Right now, we’ve got a full crop of peaches developing,” Hall said. “If it stays at 31 or 32 degrees, we should be all right. If it drops below that, well ... “

Dr. E. Barclay Poling of N.C. State University said Tuesday that temperatures of 28 degrees or colder for a few hours can damage blossoms and developing fruit.

“With minimums of 30 (degrees), we can count on getting by,” Poling said. “But the concern now is that it could get down to 28 and cooler in some areas of the Piedmont.”

Despite sunshine, Charlotte will only see high temperatures Wednesday in the middle to upper 50s – about 15 degrees below average. A slow, gradual warming trend is forecast for the rest of the week.

The Easter weekend outlook is for a mix of clouds and sun, with daytime highs in the low 70s.

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