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Cold snap threatens crops

Harrison Metzger
Times-News Staff Writer

Fighting a fierce wind and bitter cold, Danny McConnell realized between 2 and 3 a.m. Saturday he couldn't save his strawberry crop on his own.

As the temperature plunged six degrees in one hour to 22 degrees, automatic sprinklers that coat the blooming strawberry plants with protective ice started freezing up. Sticking in one part of their rotation, they blasted spray like fire hoses into the snowy darkness.

McConnell, 44, picked up the phone and called four of his employees to come help. Wearing ponchos but getting soaked in gusts of mist, they worked until after dawn trying to keep the sprinklers turning.

"I have never seen this in my life, this cold, this late (in spring) in Henderson County," said McConnell, who grows apples, berries and vegetables on his 125 acres. "It would freeze up so fast the six of us would each take a line and by the time we got back to the first one it was stopped again.

"I have heard of it, but I have never experienced the sprinklers freezing in the 10 years I've been growing on this farm."

A light snow fell between 9 and 2 a.m., but a quarter- to half-inch dusting was not enough to blanket and protect the strawberries or the apple trees that caught a few flakes in their pink blossoms.

The county's apple crop, which brought in almost $23 million last year, faces severe damage from record-breaking cold, and the danger is not over yet. Temperatures were expected to plummet into the teens early this morning.

A few growers have wind machines designed to prevent frost, but they can do little to protect the budding trees against the deep prolonged freeze that settled over the orchards the past two nights.

Wade Edney, who grows strawberries and apples on about 80 acres off Clear Creek Road, went out at 2 a.m. to irrigate his strawberries but the conditions forced him to give up.

"I couldn't put water on them so I went home and went back to bed, and it pretty well looked like it hurt them bad," he said.

The only strawberries he has that did not appear damaged were about two acres he has under row cover cloth. He said his apples appeared badly damaged.

"Everything is black, all the blooms which would be the apple are real brown," he said. "There may be some (that survive)."

It will be several days before growers can determine how much fruit may have survived the Easter weekend arctic blast, said Marvin Owings, the county's apple specialist.

Trees that have closed buds have a better chance of producing fruit. Unfortunately, many apple trees are in the most vulnerable stage, blooming a week to 10 days early thanks to six weeks of unseasonably balmy weather that preceded the cold snap.

"A freeze like this doesn't occur that often and it is just really hard to tell what is going to occur," Owings said.

Plant rescue

It wasn't just farmers struggling against the cold. At Lowe's in Hendersonville, several indoor aisles were filled with carts of plants employees had rescued from outside.

Nursery specialist Adam Hudgins spent the day fielding inquiries from "hundreds and hundreds" of callers and walk-in customers, worried their early spring plantings would be decimated.

"It is looking to be a pretty serious event for Western North Carolina, a lot of damage," Hudgins said. "Everybody is doing the best they can to try and save what they've got."

He advised customers to cover their tender plants with firmly anchored frost cloth or burlap.

"A lot of people are using old blankets, anything they can to try to salvage what they can at this point," he said.

The bitter cold endangered vegetables in the ground, perennials and blossoming azaleas, dogwoods and other trees with new growth.

"It's going to knock the blooms off -- it won't kill them, but it is definitely going to damage them," Hudgins said. "Trees with new green growth you will see a lot of black edges and tips from the cold damage. There really is nothing you can use to recover from that."

Another bitter night

Exhausted after his night-long struggle, McConnell steered his pickup through the fields and orchards, the heater blasting.

At 9 a.m. it was 24 degrees.

By 10, it had climbed to 29. Even at noon, temperatures hovered near 30.

Temperatures at the Asheville Regional Airport didn't get above freezing until almost 1 p.m., and Saturday's high reached only 38. The record low of 20 at the airport beat the previous record of 25 set in 1982.

As bad as it was Friday night and Saturday morning, this morning may be worse for farmers struggling to protect their crops. The National Weather Service called for record lows from 15 to 19 under clear skies with northwest winds from 10 to 20 mph, followed by a sunny, cold Easter with highs reaching only the mid 40s.

Farmers look for cloud cover to the help keep the temperature from dropping too far. None was forecast.

Normally winds of 10 to 20 mph might help prevent frost, but with temperatures as cold as forecast, a hard freeze makes a coating of frost "irrelevant," McConnell said. He and others are bracing to lose a large part of their apple and other crops.

"It's almost impossible to freeze protect when it gets that cold," he said. "The problem is the colder it gets, the more water you have to use."

A diesel-powered generator hummed nearby, powering the pump that coated his 14 acres of strawberries with 1,000 gallons per minute of water. He estimated he had pumped 750,000 gallons from farm ponds by mid morning.

Still the temperature remained below freezing and the pump kept working, spraying the mist that coated the acres of berries in a glass-like glaze. A few apple trees among his 20 acres of orchards were coated by wind-born spray. Like most Henderson County growers, McConnell has no means of protecting his apple trees from weather this cold.

He planned to be back out irrigating his strawberries this morning, but acknowledged determination may not be enough to save the crops.

"I would say there's been some pretty severe damage to the fruit crop in the county," he said.

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