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Lebanon County fruit farmers are not fans of warming temps

Written by John Latimer/Lebanon Daily News | Mar 9, 2016 2:38 PM
warm_weather_biking.jpg

A woman rides her bike across the iron bridge in Cornwall Borough on the Lebanon Valley Rails to Trails as temperatures reached into the mid-70s on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News

A sudden cold spell following days of warm temperatures can damage fruit trees

(Lebanon) -- While this week's spring-like weather is a welcome relief to those who still shiver when recalling January's record-setting snow storm, not everyone is thrilled with the sudden warmth.

Fruit tree farmers are casting a wary eye at their thermometers as they see the red line rise.

They are worried because a prolonged warm spell like this one can roust trees from their winter dormancy, putting them at risk if it is followed by a deep freeze, according to Tara Baugher, a senior educator for the Penn State Cooperative Extension who specializing in fruit trees.

"If we stay warm for an extended period of time then we could see an early bloom, which would make fruit trees more susceptible to a loss of fruit due to freezing temperatures," she said.

Tuesday's high reached 74 degrees at Muir Airfield at Fort Indiantown Gap, according to the National Weather Service, breaking the old record of 71 set in 2009.

Daytime temperatures were predicted to also reach the low-70s on Wednesday and Thursday, as warm southern air continues to be pumped into the region. Temperatures will moderate through the weekend but still remain about 10 degrees above seasonal averages with daytime temperatures in the low-60s and nighttime cooling into the low-40s.

Fortunately for farmers, the long-term forecast for both the National Weather Service and Accu-Weather predicts continued moderate temperatures next week.

Should that forecast change and the temperatures dip below freezing the harvest yield could be impacted. The later the freeze, the more susceptible the blooms are to damage, Baugher said.

"If a bud is just starting to swell, it might be able to take 18 degrees, but the closer it gets to full bloom there's more chance of damage at a higher temperature like 31 degrees."

Glen Hess, who grows 11 varieties of apples and other fruit on the family-owned Sycamore Spring Orchards on Thompson Avenue and Heilmandale Road in North Annville Township, recalls when the area experienced record high temperatures at this time of year in 2009.

"The problem we had that particular year was the trees were out of dormancy, and we had a really cold, damp stretch of weather just as the trees started to bloom, so we didn't get the fruit we should have that year because the bees stayed in their hives."

Having a wide variety of apples trees that bloom at different times of year helps protect the farm's productivity, Hess explained.

"Each variety blooms at different times, so as long as we don't have a month of wet weather that keeps the bees from foraging, we'll be alright," he said.

Daniel Seyfert, who tended to his trees at Seyfert Orchards on Mt. Zion Road in North Lebanon Township, has seen it all in his 40 years of growing apples and other fruit crops.

"I know we had some early (temperature) breaks like this already and later on it got cold," he recalled. "Some of the early crops like plums would get hit."

Seyfert blamed the unpredictable warm ocean currents of El Nino for producing this week's mild weather, but he didn't discount some farmers' lore as an explanation.

"I don't know," he said. "A lot of old timers say 'Early Easter, early spring,' and Easter is real early this year," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

With Mother Nature out of his control, Seyfert said he was taking precautions by preparing to spray the trees for insects and disease that also might emerge from the warm temperatures.

That's a wise idea, the Cooperative Extension expert Baugher said.

"The growers need to hurry up and complete their winter pruning activity and chop the brush so they are ready to get their spraying equipment into the orchards so they can begin controlling insects and disease," she said. "The early season spray is the most important. If they time it properly they can eliminate some spraying later in the season."

Farmers are not the only ones who should be nervous about the unseasonably warm temperatures.

Flower garden enthusiasts will also see an impact if they are followed by a cold snap, said Sinclair Adams, a horticulturist for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lebanon County.

"Early warmth can be a problem for early flowers if temps dive below freezing, subsequently," he wrote in an emailed response. "Some plants that are budded, but not yet open, can lose their buds with a cold period."

But different flowers react differently, Adams noted.

"Some plants have hardier flowers than buds actually, such as Chrysanthemum," he said. "Early Magnolia flowers often are damaged by frost, causing the petals to turn brown which is unsightly. Spring bulbs are pretty tough in respect to cold, and often daffodils will bloom just fine after a snowfall, but daffodil flowers that are frozen will be lost."

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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