Local farmers fret over possible freeze

Crops coaxed by warm spell still in danger

Bob MacQueen looks over the budding apple tress in the family orchards in Holland. A freeze could damage the buds and ruin the apple crop.
Bob MacQueen looks over the budding apple tress in the family orchards in Holland. A freeze could damage the buds and ruin the apple crop.

If the temperatures continue soaring, Jeff MacQueen should have an early harvest at his family's 200-acre apple orchard in Springfield Township. If they dip far below freezing for any length of time, he might not have much of a harvest at all.

The string of unseasonably warm days has coaxed his trees out of their winter slumber weeks ahead of schedule -- and well within the range of a potential deep freeze.

"If it gets down to the mid to lower 20s, we would have considerable damage right now," Mr. MacQueen said.

The mild winter coupled with an early arrival of springlike weather have pushed Ohio's agriculture business about a month ahead of schedule. In most ways that's a good thing, especially for crop farmers, who are getting a chance to catch up after last year's late planting and even later harvest. Some corn didn't get taken off the fields until February.

Still, agricultural observers say it does create potential for setbacks. There are worries that bugs and blights normally culled by the winter months might come on stronger this year, and there's a good chance temperatures will at some point drop back to freezing.

The thought of a prolonged cold spell as the trees near bloom is a nightmare for orchard owners.

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Steve Elzinga, of Erie Orchards in Monroe County's Erie Township, said he's never in his 35 years at the orchard seen apple tree buds break open this early.

"The chance of frost in April, if the past is any indication, is 100 percent," he wrote in an email to The Blade while traveling overseas. "We are facing a devastating disaster with the loss of the entire crop."

Normally, the high for the Toledo area is around 50 degrees this time of year, and nighttime lows often approach freezing, making the recent run of 70-plus-degree days unprecedented. The last day the recorded temperature in Toledo was 32 degrees or less was March 11. It's unlikely to be the last for spring, though. Data from the National Weather Service show April 27 as the average last day for temperatures of 32 or below, though freezing temperatures frequently come as late as May 10.

"Chances are we are probably going to see one more freeze, at least," said Mitch Mullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

The more days temperatures are in the 70s or higher, the less blooming apple trees can withstand the cold.

Where it might take 24-degree temperatures to kill off the buds today, 28-degree temperatures might kill them off four days from now, Mr. MacQueen said.

The only thing he can do is hope temperatures stay up and be ready to turn on the fans. The orchard has a handful of wind machines it can place in low areas to circulate air across the field, raising the ground temperature 2 to 3 degrees.

A few frosty nights are less of a concern for farmers planting corn, which can better withstand freezing temperatures.

Unless things change drastically -- something never outside the realm of possibilities in agriculture -- it's likely most farmers will start planting corn a month ahead of normal.

Bill Brossia, who with his brothers farms about 1,600 acres in northern Wood County, would be considering planting now if the fields weren't so wet from the recent heavy rains.

"We'll work at it as early as we can without packing the fields down too much," Mr. Brossia said.

In the meantime, Mr. Brossia is taking advantage of the warm days to prepare equipment.

He hopes to be planting by the first part of April, well ahead of schedule but behind some other Ohio farmers.

Mr. Brossia said some fields in Mercer and Darke counties -- along the Indiana border -- are already planted.

"It all depends on the soil conditions," said Alan Sundermeier, the Ohio State University Extension educator for Wood County. "We can have warm weather, but it's too wet to do field work."

Mr. Sundermeier said last week that many fields could be dry enough to plant by mid to late this week, depending on rainfall.

The early start should be a boon for farmers.

"Typically in those years we see the biggest yields, it is in the years we've had early planting," said Matt Roberts, an agricultural economist at Ohio State.

Better yields mean bigger paychecks.

But Mr. Sundermeier and Mr. Roberts are both concerned pests could eat into those profits.

"It's not a guarantee that pests will be more of a problem, but it could lend itself to that," Mr. Sundermeier said of the mild winter and warm March.

"We'll be monitoring that closer than usual to try to anticipate that before it's too late," he said.

At the orchard, Mr. MacQueen said he doesn't expect pest populations to be unmanageable, but he does expect to spend more money spraying insecticides.

Those who study insects, however, say that while pests may have a head start, so too do the predators that feed on them.

With everything progressing at the same pace, most farmers should expect essentially the same level of attack as last year, said Howard Russell, an entomologist at Michigan State University.

"By and large, people are going to see about what they saw last year," he said.

Most pests are long established in their areas and have adapted well to winter, and many spend their winters burrowed deep in the ground, protected whether winter is bad or not.

Other pests that spend winter above ground, or those on the fringe of their range that are not as well acclimated to cold temperatures may have marginally higher populations, but it shouldn't be enough to wreak havoc on crops, said Purdue University entomologist Christian Krupke.

"Warm or cool winters don't have the effect we might think," Mr. Krupke said. "Their populations don't fluctuate as wildly as we think."

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.