Easter weekend freeze damaged several local crops
By Scott Nicholson
Watauga County is among 56 counties in the state included in a request made by Gov. Mike Easley for a federal disaster declaration in the aftermath of an Easter freeze.
Record low temperatures, combined with a warm late winter that coaxed plants to bud, devastated many fruit crops in the High Country.
Though few people locally had planted field crops, farmers of statewide crops and nursery stock suffered an estimated $112 million worth of damage.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to assess the damage and make a request to President Bush for the disaster declaration.
Bud Smith, local Farm Service Agent for the USDA, said he assessed the damage and expected a number of fruit orchards and berry farms to have near-total losses this year.
“The fruit trees and berries are in bad shape,” Smith said. “I’m almost sure we’re looking at close to a 100-percent loss on apples.”
A recent freeze damaged many local crops and other plant life. Photo by Marie Freeman
Smith said it was more difficult to gauge the effect of the freeze on ornamental trees and shrubs, and said while the stock may survive, it will probably hurt sales this year because the stock isn’t attractive and people probably won’t use them for landscaping.
Smith said if there was any good news in the disaster, in which temperatures reached the teens between April 9-12, it’s that the damage is so widespread that a number of congressional representatives had damage in their district.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-5) sent a request to Easley saying damage had been reported in most of the counties in her district and supported an assessment for a disaster declaration. Smith said the damage extended into the northeast and freezing temperatures were reported as far south as Alabama. “With that many affected, there will be a big push for a declaration,” Smith said. “We’re not the only ones who got hurt.”
Bill Moretz, one of the largest apple growers in the county, said not only was his orchard wiped out, but so were orchards in Virginia and North Carolina, including Henderson County, the top-producing apple county in the state. Moretz said he believed the damage across the eastern part of the country could lead to higher apple prices, and locally grown apples will be almost impossible to find. Specialty species like Virginia Beauties probably won’t be found at all this year.
The stone fruits, including peaches, cherries, apricots and plums, were also killed in mid-blossom. Strawberries and blueberries will probably be in short supply this year as well.
Moretz, who has been growing apples and garden produce for several decades, said he had never suffered such a deep freeze in early spring. “A lot of people say they’ve never seen anything like this, and others say this has happened since the 1950s,” Moretz said.
He also lost an early lettuce crop, but unlike fruit, it can be replanted for this year’s harvest. Moretz is optimistic the fruit trees will produce next year, but said such events are simply part of the farming game. “You learn to take the good with the bad,” he said.
Meghan Baker, tree agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, said Christmas tree growers likely dodged severe damage because the buds on the Fraser firs hadn’t broken open. She said it might actually be a good year for Christmas trees because of the warm winter, but it was still too early to tell. Nursery trees that had root balls in burlap sacks and sold for planting may have suffered damage when the trunks split and ice caused them to crack.
Baker and Smith both advised not pruning any damage from trees, but instead letting them try to recover.
Some trees may get a new coat of leaves and eventually produce full foliage, only without new fruit or blossoms. People should wait until at least June to see how the plants recover before they try to trim them.
Statewide, nursery crops sustained the most damage, estimated at $58 million. Fruits and vegetables added up to $26.5 million. Watauga was one of 47 counties in which at least one crop experienced a loss of 35 percent or greater.
A disaster declaration is the first step toward possible federal emergency loans to growers in affected counties. Smith said he couldn’t predict when loans would be available if the declaration were made. Easley’s request was submitted on April 19.