Farmers take stock of the cold weather damage

Freezing temperatures this week may have early local strawberries a little harder to find

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Mackenzie Cornell sells strawberries for Langdon Farms of Dunn during Strawberry Day at the State Farmers' Market in Raleigh

KNIGHTDALE —— Strawberry farmers are gauging the damage of this week’s unseasonable freeze on their crops. During the low temperatures and 15- to 20-mph winds early in the week farmers drenched their spring buds with extra sprinklers in an effort to protect them with a layer of ice. Some were able to weather the cold, but many say they have likely lost their early spring crop of berries, but the plants bloom through the summer, if good weather prevails.

David Pope, owner of Pope Strawberry Farm in Knightdale, hopes he was one of the lucky ones. He estimated he was able to save 80 percent of his plants, but it wasn’t easy.”You get ice on them and ice forms as a blanket,” said Pope, who spent all night Tuesday outside keeping his sprinklers from freezing over so he could save his plants. “That plant is actually producing a little bit of heat and it’ll hold them at 32 degrees. I have been growing strawberries for 35 years and never had that problem. … You can deal with the cold, but when you’ve got cold and wind it’s tough.”

The loss was worse for some farmers who may not have been able to keep the sprinklers going all night to form that critical one inch of ice over the plants. Pope thinks the impact to consumers looking for early local berries will be minimal.

“The [price] might go up some, but there is such a thing as pricing yourself out of business,” he said. “People can say I can do without.”

The cold temperatures also damaged the famed cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., one of the U.S. capital’s major tourist attractions, the National Park Service said on Wednesday. Damaged blooms could cut into the tens of thousands of tourists who flock to enjoy the pink-and-white trees that make Washington’s Cherry Blossom Festival one of the biggest U.S. springtime parties.

“The number of cherry trees that reach the blossom stage may be reduced as a result of the recent cold temperatures,” the National Park Service said in a statement. Horticulturists found widespread damage in blossoms that had reached the fifth of six stages in the bloom cycle, so flowers at earlier stages of bloom will be forced open over the next day or two to determine if they have been harmed. The cherry trees were a gift from Japan to Washington in 1912 to honor the friendship between the two countries.

The chilly temperatures through N.C. were the southern edge of a rare mid-March “nor’easter” that swept the northern part of the country this week. Millions of people on the East Coast faced temperatures 10 to 25 degrees below average, with wind gusts of 30 mph. Thousands of flights were canceled across the region and there were six storm-related casualties in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.

In Knightdale, Pope had a sunny outlook as he surveyed his icy strawberry fields on Friday morning, knowing that early next week temperatures are supposed to drop again.

“We should be OK providing we get normal weather, as soon as we start having our March weather in February, but now we are having our February weather in March,” said Pope. “What would really be devastating is if about the time we open it starts raining. Because strawberries and water do not mix. It keeps your customers away and they get too ripe and they start rotting, but I think it’ll be all right.”