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Farmers keeping close watch on fruit crops, weather

| Monday, March 13, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
The weather was so warm last month that employees David Akins and John Gauker pruned apple trees at Kistaco Farms in Kiski Township. Although apple crops aren't expected to suffer much from today's winter storm, some farmers worry that plums and peaches will suffer greatly from the recent cold temperatures.

Temperatures that dipped into the high teens and mid-20s over the weekend zapped Hil Schramm's pears and plums.

“We'll have less than half a crop, if there's anything there,” said Schramm, who owns a 400-acre fruit farm in Penn Township.

“Some of the plums bloomed early, and they're gone now.”

As for his apples, cherries and grapes — it's still too early to tell how much damage they may have sustained from a late-winter cold snap that stretched into Tuesday and is expected to continue through the week.

“There could be some damage, we're just not sure yet,” he said. Schramm was more concerned than worried, a sentiment shared by other farmers across the region.

“It's possible the cold is hurting (fruit crops), but nobody knows for sure,” said Tim Hileman of Kistaco Farms in Kiski Township. “We (farmers) have to worry about them now until we pick them. ... There's always something. That's just the nature of the business.”

Worrying about the weather isn't practical, he said.

Sandy Feather, Penn State Extension's educator at the Allegheny County office, said many farmers share that view.

“People who farm are used to the vagaries of Mother Nature,” she said. “They learn to roll with it. (Abnormal weather) might not make their day, but they know it's part of it.”

Feather said this season's mild winter encouraged plants and fruit trees to push buds, and it's possible some crops won't develop. “But not all of them. They all bloom at different times, you know? The buds don't open the same day,” Feather said. According to Penn State, apple trees produce many more flowers than necessary to bear fruit. “Only about 5 percent of the blossoms are needed to have a good crop. So if a frost kills 80 percent of the flowers, there is still a chance for a good crop,” the university recently reported.

Bob Pollock, Penn State Extension educator in Indiana County, described the over-blossoming of apple trees as a natural fail-safe. What is concerning, he said, is the possibility of a cold snap in April, when most crops begin to blossom.

“Especially with fruits — some of their buds are coming because of warmer weather. That makes them less hardy than they were. With each time the temperature goes up and down, they tend to be less hardy and susceptible to damage,” Pollock said.

It was a close call for Adam Voll, farm manager at Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park, which has 20 acres of apple trees and four acres of peaches.

“Luckily, the buds weren't out too far before the cold snap,” he said. “The bloom time is the critical time, and that's where you don't want to go below freezing. That's where you have the sleepless nights.”

Ornamental plants, trees and shrubs haven't taken much of a hit, either, said Dave Vargo, Kiski Garden Center owner in Allegheny Township.

“We've uncovered them; the cold hasn't affected them,” he said.

Though residents should expect to lose some lilacs and forsythia flowers, the cold won't kill the shrubs.

Bulb flowers like daffodils will stand up again, Vargo promised. “The snow helps everything. It acts like an insulator,” he said. The cold weather delayed some seasonal activities, such as moving seedlings into larger greenhouses, and even some educational activities, Feather said.

“I had to cancel the pruning class scheduled (Tuesday.) Most of the guys who signed up are going to be plowing snow,” Feather said, laughing.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Staff writer Mary Ann Thomas contributed.

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