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April 12, 2007

Cold snap causes widespread damage to Hoosier fruit crops

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -
Freeze-damaged apple flower
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A recent cold snap has caused widespread damage to fruit crops throughout Indiana - affecting apples, peaches, grapes and blueberries, among others - with three weeks still to go until most of the state is clear of frost warnings.

Recent low temperatures that have dipped into the teens in some parts of the state have nearly wiped out the peach crop and hurt many varieties of apples, said Purdue University experts.

"This is an unusually bad freeze," said Bruce Bordelon, a Purdue Extension viticulturist, or grape-growing expert. "It's the worst I have seen or heard of in at least 15 years."

Nevertheless, Hoosier growers and consumers are urged to not completely write off their fruit crops, as the damage varies widely among different types and varieties of fruit, as well as by their location. But continuing cold could do more damage. 

The current cold spell would be less devastating were it not for the weeks of unusually warm weather in late March, Bordelon said. This heat caused fruit crops to develop earlier than usual, making them more vulnerable to frost damage.

The cold snap hit peaches the hardest of any fruit, with many growers reporting total losses, said Peter Hirst, a Purdue Extension fruit specialist. Apples also have been affected, although it is too early to quantify the damage.

Grape yields are likely to decline by 50 percent to 75 percent, Bordelon said. Growers may see losses of three-fourths their blueberries, he said. 

Hirst said damage is worse in southern Indiana because warmer temperatures spurred more plant and bud development.

"The amount of damage that we get depends on a couple things," he said. "One is how cold it got, but another one is what stage of development those crops were in when the cold conditions hit. Generally speaking, the more advanced the development, the more sensitive the plant is to the cold."

Developing buds can tolerate below-freezing temperatures, he said, but once flowers open, they are very sensitive to cold. Hirst said he has seen several varieties of apples already in bloom and that these aren't likely to produce much fruit at all this year.

In general, Bordelon said, fruit crops have budded out about two weeks sooner than usual. "But the worst part is that we still have around three weeks until most of Indiana is safe from frost," he said.

Despite the devastation, the entire fruit crop isn't wiped out, and consumers will still probably be able to find orchards and farms with fruit throughout the state, Bordelon said.

However, the impact of the damage is likely to be magnified by the nature of the fruit crop industry. Many orchards rely heavily upon non-fruit profits generated by visitors to their orchards who purchase other goods or pay for certain activities. Without fruit on the trees, Hirst said, it may be hard to attract visitors.

The Purdue experts said that all growers - even those who have been hit hardest - should not let the cold snap prevent them from continuing to manage the crop, or they could suffer the consequences next year and beyond. While this depends upon the type of fruit and the extent of the damage, growers may be able to reduce some costs. For example, if a crop produces no fruit, there is no need to apply pesticides for fruit-specific pests. But growers need to carefully weigh the different risks involved, Hirst said.

"People have to work on saving money without compromising the long-term integrity of the plants," he said.

In some cases, growers might even need to apply more chemical treatments than usual because freeze damage leaves fruit trees vulnerable to additional diseases, particularly fire blight, said Janna Beckerman, a professor of botany and plant pathology.

Beckerman, Bordelon and Hirst urge growers to consult their online newsletter, "Facts for Fancy Fruit," in the upcoming weeks for fruit-specific advice and information on how to manage individual fruits and how this might change based on the extent of the damage. It is available online at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/fff/.

As of last year, about 400 acres of grapes were cultivated in Indiana, with a total value of about $1.5 million. More than 600 acres of blueberries were harvested, totaling around $4 million. Indiana has about 2,000 acres of apples and 400 acres of peaches.

The cold snap began on April 4, dipping below freezing for 30 hours in Lafayette. Then, less than a day later, the temperature reached 25 degrees and stayed there for seven hours. This past weekend, there were about 40 hours of freezing temperatures, with a low of 22 degrees. That was followed by more damaging temperatures this week, and Lafayette still has a risk of frost until early May.

Writer: Douglas M. Main, (765) 496-2050, dmain@purdue.edu

Sources: Bruce Bordelon, (765) 494-8212, bordelon@purdue.edu

Peter Hirst, (765) 494-1323, hirst@purdue.edu

Janna Beckerman, (765) 494-4628, jbeckerm@purdue.edu

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Beth Forbes, forbes@purdue.edu
Agriculture News Page

PHOTO CAPTION:
In this cross section of a freeze-damaged apple flower, the brown tissue near the base indicates that the flower is dead. If the tissue is green, the flower is likely healthy, according to Purdue Extension specialists. A recent freeze has hurt varieties of apples and other fruit crops throughout the state.

A publication-quality photo is available at http://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2007/bordelon-cold.jpg

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