Farmers worry frost could damage some crops

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 10:58 a.m.

Local farmers are doing everything they can to fight the cold.

Temperatures reached the low 30s late Sunday and early Monday — some people in Lower Burrell and Harrison even reported snow on the ground — and a repeat was expected for late Monday and early Tuesday.

No surprise that Wes Ambrose is worried about his tomato crop.

“We had a fairly easy night, (Sunday) night,” said Ambrose, owner of Ambrose Farm in Winfield. “Tonight (Monday) will be a little more of a challenge.”

According to the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, the area was under a frost warning from 1 a.m. until 8 a.m. Tuesday.

To help combat the possibility of frost, Ambrose and his father, Steve, use an overhead irrigation system to water their more than 20,000 tomato plants in order to keep them from freezing.

“We have onions and cabbage and other crops out, but they're fairly resistant,” he said. “The tomatoes are a different story.

“We'll be crossing our fingers that they don't get damaged too much.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Rehak said while temperature plays a role in frost, it's not the only key component.

“You have to have clear skies and no wind,” Rehak said. “Tonight (Monday) it might go below freezing for a couple hours, especially north and east of Allegheny County.

“It can frost when it's in the 40s; it's all about the conditions.”

Rehak said when temperatures reach below 30 degrees, farmers — professional or otherwise — should be even more worried.

“That's a freeze. It doesn't matter what the other conditions are like. If crops aren't properly cared for, they'll be killed.”

Rehak said it isn't unusual for a frost or freeze to occur in mid-May.

At Schramm Farms and Orchards in Penn Township, Westmoreland County, the concern is over grapes.

Hill Schramm, one of the farm's owners, said his farm uses the same irrigation system that the Ambroses use for tomatoes, and his other crops are covered to limit the amount of cold that can affect them.

“We either cover stuff, or we run the water all night,” he said about his more than 150-acre farm. “The strawberries, asparagus, sweet corn and tomatoes are all protected.

“The only thing we can't protect are the grapes.”

Schramm said the farm's apple and pear trees have blossomed, so they're unlikely to be harmed by the cold.

Schramm said he's glad the cold weather will only be around for a couple of days.

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to return to the 70s on Wednesday.

“If it was constant cold weather, it will damage them, even if you do protect them,” Ambrose said. “It's the lesser of two evils.”

Ambrose said it'll take a while to know if his tomatoes are severely damaged.

“They can be pretty rugged,” he said. “My dad always says, ‘The next morning (after a frost) they can look pretty sad, and then you look a month later and they look like nothing happened to them.'

“They can bounce back.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer.

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