Bummer crop: Warm temperatures worry farmers

Tim Henley’s peach crop at Henley’s Orchard was already threatened before the latest cold blast and snow.
Rammelkamp Foto Tim Henley’s peach crop at Henley’s Orchard was already threatened before the latest cold blast and snow. Rammelkamp Foto

Last month was the warmest February on record with an average temperature of 47.7 degrees, based on numbers from the McCormick Observatory dating back to the 19th century. While many are happy to ditch their winter coats early, a nice day this early in the season is a nightmare for some farmers.

“It’s really going to affect us badly,” Tim Henley, owner of Henley’s Orchard in Crozet, said last week. “I’m expecting this next cold blast is pretty much going to wipe out all of our peaches.”

On Henley’s 1,000 acres of farmland, 25 acres are reserved for growing 35 varieties of apples (including fan favorites such as Albemarle Pippin and Black Twig), and 18 acres are reserved for more than a dozen types of white and yellow peaches. With recent warm temperatures pushing 80 degrees, a majority of the buds in the peach reserve at Henley’s have already bloomed, or at least swollen to a fragile state. Cool temperatures, even just at night, could kill them for the whole season.

And it’s happened before. During a good year, Henley says he and his team produce between 4,000 and 5,000 bushels of the pitted fruit. Last year, due to similar conditions, they had none.

“It’s fairly depressing,” he says. “We just try to be optimistic. We’ll probably get a lot more apple trees pruned this year than usual,” he adds, because they likely won’t have to spend time thinning peach crops.

Over at Bellair Farm, an 850-acre plot 11 miles south of downtown Charlottesville, the warm weather isn’t all bad news.

Farm manager Jamie Barrett says he usually starts selling community supported agriculture shares in mid-May, but if temperatures continue to stay up, he may be able to start earlier. Because he grows mostly annual vegetables, (think: eggplant planted seasonally, not apples yielding from the same trees each year), warmer weather means an opportunity to get out into the fields earlier to prep for the growing season.

“We can get things in the ground a little earlier,” he says. “For us, there are certain crops like strawberries we worry about. And our garlic is taller than usual this time of year. A hard frost might knock that back.”

Barrett planted his strawberries last spring because they take a year to bear fruit.

“We should expect that to start in May or June and we’ll begin picking at that time,” he says. “If they start blooming now, and it gets real cold at night, we’re going to lose those blossoms and lose our strawberry crop. It’s always something we worry about. It’s just getting harder and harder to manage things with the weather being so volatile.”

And though most of the Bellair crops will be okay, he sympathizes with the orchards that are getting hit.

“The peaches and the apples are not coming in like they’re used to. It all comes back to the weather now,” Barrett says. “It’s great if people can have that in mind and really support those local businesses when they need it.”

Jerry Stenger, the director of the climatology office at the University of Virginia, doesn’t have good news for the farmers hoping to ward off a frost. In fact, he says the worst is yet to come.

Through the end of February, the area had seen only 2.9 inches of snowfall, when an average for that time period is more than a foot—about 14 inches. The snow that started March 13 added less than an inch to the season’s accumulation.

“We’re not anywhere near free of the snowfall season,” he says. “This time of year, chances of getting more measurable snow are about 50-50. This is not too bizarre and it’s not unexpected that we’ll have some more snow coming along.”

Stenger points to early March 2013, when 15.5 inches of snow were dumped on the city.

But it won’t be too much longer before we’re in the clear, he says. “Now by the time we get to April, the chances of any decent snowfall are really diminished.”

Feverish February

Is it time to break out the shorts and tank tops? Information gathered from UVA’s McCormick Observatory ranks last month as the hottest February on record.

  • February 2017: 47.7 degrees on average
  • Average February temperature: 39.1 degrees
  • Winter snowfall through end of February: 2.9 inches
  • Average winter snowfall through end of February: 14 inches
  • February 2017 seventh driest on record: .78 inches of precipitation
  • Average February precipitation: 3.07 inches of precipitation

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