Wednesday, 03 April 2019 21:48

Richmond County strawberry, peach crops spared from freezing temps

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Lee Berry's strawberry crop was spared Wednesday morning's freezing temperatures. Lee Berry's strawberry crop was spared Wednesday morning's freezing temperatures. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ELLERBE — Two Richmond County fruit farmers were glad to see their crops survived Wednesday morning’s frost.

Lee Berry, of the Berry Patch, went out to his four-acre field near the intersection of Greenlake and McIntyre roads around 6 a.m. The temperature was 33 degrees but had dropped to 31 by the next hour.

Berry pointed to a brown spot on a small green strawberry he said was caused by the berry touching the blanket overnight.

“It didn’t kill it, but what it’s going to do is put a little funky spot on the end of it,” he said. “It just won’t ever mature properly.”

For the most part, though, he didn’t see much damage.

“If it would have dried out two hours earlier yesterday and if the wind had’ve blown (and the sun had come out earlier) … it would have dried ‘em out and there wouldn’t be an issue at all,” he said. “Thirty-one’s nothing with the blankets that I use.”

The row blankets that cover the rows are effective down to 27 degrees, Berry added.

He also turned on the water pipes that run down the middle of the rows to try to increase the temperature by at least one degree, which he said can “make or break” a peach or blueberry crop.

“Is that what saved me this morning? I don’t know,” Berry said. “It was a little bit of everything, especially the prayers, definitely the prayers.”

Up the road in Wind Blow, Danny Bynum was checking on his peach orchards, pulling blooms of the trees to inspect the budding fruit.

“I think we’re gonna be good,” he said. “Usually in about three or four days you can tell.”

The past two frosts weren’t as devastating as the one in 2016, when farmers took a huge hit from a mid-March deep-freeze.

“We have had some bad ones in March where, no matter what you do, you just can’t save the crop,” Berry said. “I’ve seen it where you’re more worried about saving the plant than you are the crop.

“Because once that plant starts growing, gets green and vigorous, a cold snap can really damage the plant internally.”

North Carolina is the fourth-largest producer of strawberries in the nation, with about 1,100 acres harvested across the state, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Bynum, a third-generation farmer, wasn’t as worried about this week’s frost, because experience has taught him there’s always a big frost before Easter.

“You’ve got to get by Easter before you can say you’ve got it made,” he said.

Bynum grows around 15 variety of peaches — including the local popular namesake Winblo Peach, developed in 1972 — and sales them at his roadside stand on N.C. 73.

Winblos are usually ready to pick by the first of July; some of the other varieties, a little earlier.

“Raising peaches is like going to Las Vegas,” Bynum said. “Sometimes you hit the jackpot, sometimes you go home broke.”

During the frost several weeks ago, Bynum made out OK, whereas Berry lost 5-8 percent of his crop — even after doubling up on the blankets.

However, this year was the earliest he’s picked strawberries in 25 years, starting on March 22. The average pick date, he said, is April 10.

He was also thankful that blackberry plants he recently ordered from Florida didn’t arrive last week when they were supposed to because the greenhouse-grown plants would have been shocked by the freezing temps.

“There should be plenty of berries this year despite a wet and cold first quarter in 2019,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a March 29 press release. “We encourage consumers to visit a pick-your-own farm, go to a farmers market or stop by a roadside stand to get the freshest berries available.”

Berry said he spoke with two friends on Wednesday who also grow strawberries, one in South Carolina, the other in Greensboro.

“We were all concerned about the same thing, but everybody came out good,” he said. “We’re all blessed to still have a crop today.”

Danny Bynum inspects a budding peach after pulling a bloom off a tree in his Wind Blow orchard.