Cold gives area growers a miss -- for now Blossoms' early arrival may yet spell disaster

March 16, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Fruit growers in Maryland say last week's cold snap killed some of the early blossoms on their apricot, peach and plum trees. And they won't rest easy until the last threat of a freeze is gone in early May.

But so far, they say, thanks to a slower flowering of local trees, they have escaped the widespread damage suffered by their brethren to the south.

Georgia alone has reported more than $200 million in crop losses from the freeze, including peppers, tomatoes, blueberries and half the state's peaches.

"We're very fortunate," said Evan Milburn, co-owner of Milburn Orchards in Cecil County. "Five families make a living off this farm. If the flowers had been out, we would have been wiped out. We would not have had a paycheck for a year."

While he takes no pleasure in another person's misfortune, Milburn said a scarcity of fruit from Southern states this year might boost prices for Maryland growers whose crops survived.

"That's the breaks we get in the business," Milburn said. "When another gets frozen out, it helps the ones who did not get hurt." Next year, it could easily work the other way around, he said.

But Maryland growers stress that they're not out of the woods. Mild winter weather in the East attributed to the El Nino weather phenomenon has pushed bud and blossom formation about three weeks ahead of schedule here.

While most blossoms were not advanced enough to be hurt this time, they will only become more vulnerable as time passes. Another cold snap during the long six weeks before the freeze danger ends could be fatal to the crop.

"The earlier it [blossoming] starts, the more problems we'll have during the whole season," said Terry Hepburn, manager and president of Hepburn Orchards Fruit Market in Washington County. "It's not a very optimistic view of what's going to happen."

For now, the recent cold weather has mostly helped to slow bud development, "like putting the brakes on," said Milburn. "When you see highs of 45 in the daytime, that's great for us now. We like this."

But higher daytime temperatures will speed things again, and nighttime lows will again become critical.

"A couple of weeks from now, if the [low] temperature hits 20 degrees, I'm sure you'll be talking to me again," Milburn said.

Temperatures in the state's orchards last week dropped as low as the midteens, growers said. Strong winds kept the coldest night air from settling on the orchards and reduced the damage. But some blossoms were damaged.

On peach, plum and apricot trees, a freeze kills the most $H advanced blossoms, growers say. The tree then shifts its energy to secondary blooms, which are further behind in their development.

"The apricots got a pretty good thinning, but there are still apricots there as we speak," said Robert Black, who grows his big Goldrich apricots at Catoctin Mountain Orchard near Thurmont. Some of the plums were lost, but he found no significant damage to his peaches.

In a more benign spring, he said, growers typically hire crews to go through the orchards to remove 70 percent to 80 percent of the apricots and peaches. "The tree can't support that many apricots. They would be as big as peas if we didn't thin them off.

"I guess Mother Nature has just done a little thinning for us," Black said.

Apple trees are different. Their first blossom is called a "king bloom." It produces the largest fruit. "If it's cold enough to kill king bloom, the side ones get it also," Milburn said.

Growers said the apple blossom buds were not far enough along to be damaged by last week's cold snap.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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