DERBY — With lows expected to drop below freezing the next two nights, Richmond County’s peach crops could be endangered.
Warm temperatures in recent weeks have local peach trees blossoming with bright pink flowers, but the National Weather Service has issued a freeze warning for most of North and South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Kentucky, as well as parts of Georgia, Mississippi and West Virginia and southern areas of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
Jim Lambeth of Triple L Farms walked through one of his orchards Thursday afternoon inspecting the trees and trying to assess their survivability.
The orchard across the road from the family’s summer produce store has a different variety of peach in every row.
The Intrepid variety may get by, Lambeth said, because the blooms are still “relatively” covering the peaches.
“As long as that bloom’s around it, it will protect it some,” he said, looking at one tree of a different variety. “But now it’s grown out of the bloom and the bloom’s getting ready to shuck off.”
Some already had.
“That one’s already dropped the flower off of it,” he said while checking out another variety. “It’ll get killed tonight.”
Lambeth said those tiny peaches wouldn’t be able to stand temperatures below 32 degrees.
According to the National Weather Service, lows are expected in the upper 20s both Thursday and Friday nights.
Lambeth said he lost about half of his crop during a freeze last year.
Thursday afternoon’s temperature was 15-20 degrees below normal, Lambeth said, and the wind was also rather gusty, which, if it continues through the night, could save the crop.
Wind speeds over the next 24 hours are expected to be 7-14 mph, with gusts up to 23 mph. However, winds Friday night into Saturday morning are forecast to be much lighter — around 3 mph.
Lambeth spent the afternoon setting out hay bales around the field to burn and try to soften the blow.
“If the wind’s blowing a little bit, it’ll carry the heat across the field,” Lambeth explained.
Some larger farms use windmills, sometimes in conjunction with burning bales, to help protect their crops, he added.
If the freeze had come two weeks earlier, Lambeth said, it wouldn’t be as bad because the peaches were less developed.
There have been freezes as late as the last week of April, he recalled.
North Carolina farmers took a huge hit in 2016 with a mid-March deep-freeze.
According to a 2019 press release from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are around 800 acres of peaches in the Tar Heel State. Two years prior, peach growers reportedly contributed $2.7 million to the state’s economy with more than 24 varieties.
“It’s a hard job growing peaches,” Lambeth said.
During a story following a freeze in 2019, Danny Bynum of Bynum’s Peach Farm in nearby Wind Blow equated farming to gambling.
“Raising peaches is like going to Las Vegas,” Bynum said. “Sometimes you hit the jackpot, sometimes you go home broke.”
Down the road in Ellerbe, Lee Berry, of The Berry Patch, wasn’t concerned about the squash and other crops that were planted Wednesday because they’re still below the surface.
And he’s hoping his strawberries will stay safe.
Berry installed small greenhouses above his rows of strawberries on his farm on Greenlake Road to protect against rain and hail. To help fight off the frost, they’ve thrown blankets overtop of the plastic.
North Carolina is the third-largest domestic producer of strawberries, according to the N.C. Strawberry Association.
However, Berry is concerned about the potatoes.
“They may not get burnt tonight because the wind’s strong and we’ve got some heat in the ground, but tomorrow I think they’ll get burnt,” Berry said.
He also thinks the corn will be fine, since it hasn’t opened up yet.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff in the ground that’ll hide its face until the middle of next week, so we’re going to be in big trouble if we get another one anytime soon,” Berry said.
He added that as long as the wind continues, it should help Lambeth’s peaches as well as his own crops.
“(The wind has) dried out the blooms from the rain last night, and as long as the blooms are dry with a strawberry, peach or anything else, it can’t crystalize,” Berry said. “When you start forming the ice crystals is when you start getting the cold damage.
“It can be 35 degrees with moisture and do more damage than it can at 28 tonight with dried blooms,” he continued. “I think everybody’s going to be okay tonight — tomorrow’s gonna tell the tale of how much dew we get the next morning.”
Strawberry plants at Lee Berry’s Farm on Greenlake Road just outside Ellerbe are protected under miniature greenhouses, with an extra layer of blankets over the top.