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Warmest February on record creates mixed outlook for Virginia farmers

farmersWhile many Virginians enjoyed the warmest February on record, some farmers were very concerned.

Sustained hot temperatures this early in the year could have caused early budding and even early bloom on many agricultural products: apples, peaches, strawberries and wine grapes top the list. Sandy Adams, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), said the situation occurs when unseasonable hot weather is followed in March or April by sustained cold that nips the buds.

That is exactly what happened the week of March 12 for some crops but not others. Since loss of the blossoms means a loss of fruit for the year, frost protection is very important and many farmers have been scrambling to provide that protection.

Cold temperatures during the first and second weeks of March had strawberry growers in the Tidewater region worried. A VDACS marketing specialist said many plants had already bloomed and some even had produced baby berries, even on farms that used row covers to protect the plants. Growers with row covers are using them and some farmers without covers are using overhead irrigation to protect from frost freeze. That sounds contradictory but sprinkler irrigation for frost damage protection works because water gives off heat when it changes from a liquid to a solid, i.e., when it freezes.

For apple and wine grape growers in most parts of the state, the cold actually was good news. Apple grower Phil Glaize in Winchester said, “This is exactly what the doctor ordered.” His 600 acres of trees were beginning to bud early but had not started to bloom. “The cold delayed the blooming process,” he said, “and it made my day. I’m so happy I may go out and build a snow man.”

Annette Ringwood Boyd with the Virginia Wine Marketing Office had the same positive report about wine grapes. “The early heat really had us worried but the recent cold has helped. Wine grapes are not at bud break yet and the cold slows down that process, so the cold weather was good news for grape growers.”

Other tree fruits may not have fared so well. Peaches were farther along the budding process and apricots had already bloomed. Farmers could lose a lot of fruit or an entire crop on those trees.

“This year’s weather patterns are not behaving according to the norm,” said Commissioner Adams, “and any farmer out there will tell you that we won’t know about this year’s harvest for many weeks. But with their typical resiliency, they all say they are hoping for the best and will deal with the worst if and when it comes.”

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