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Growers assess damage from Monday night freeze

| Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Monday night was sleepless for Adam Voll, who spent the wee hours fanning apple trees and irrigating peach trees at his family's farm in Butler County, where the temperature fell to 19 degrees, damaging at least some of the crops.

"I'd never sleep anyway, even if I were in bed," said Voll, manager of Soergel Orchards, which operates a store and two farms, in Prospect and Franklin Park.

Yesterday, Voll said he found "some damage" to peach trees in his orchard. He and other growers said they expect to know the extent of the damage by the end of the week.

The level of worry and activity was the same at Trax Farms in Finleyville, where owner Ross Trax and employees scrambled to protect flowers and ran irrigation on the farm's strawberries. Moist soil aids in preventing frost.

"We carried everything we could inside and covered the rest," said Trax, who thinks it will take a few days to determine how the freeze affected the farm's 20 acres of peach and apple trees.

In Allegheny County, Imperial, Hampton and Russelton each reported lows of 22 degrees on Monday night. Other area lows included 22 degrees in Beaver Falls, 21 in Butler, 15 in Lynch, Forest County, and 17 degrees at Laurel Mountain in Westmoreland County.

The average low on March 26 in Western Pennsylvania is 34, yet the freeze wouldn't be so potentially crippling if it hadn't been so warm lately. High temperatures eclipsed 70 degrees in Pittsburgh for 11 consecutive days, the only such stretch since record-keeping began in 1871.

"Blooms are a month ahead, and -- from north to south -- there's almost no variation in bloom stage," said James Schupp, an associate professor at Penn State's Fruit Research and Extension in Biglerville, Adams County, where half of Pennsylvania's apples grow.

"Adams County and the Hudson Valley are now at the same bloom stage, and that leaves more northern growers in a risk situation for a longer period of time because it could get cold again," Schupp said.

Sandy Feather, an extension educator and horticulturist at Penn State's Cooperative Extension in Point Breeze, said people's gardens are also blooming at least a month early. "Forsythias are out. Magnolias and flowering pears already seem to be done," she said.

Even if the damage is minimal, the threat isn't over. Thursday night's forecast low in Pittsburgh is 30 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The rest of the week is better, with lows in the upper 30s and lower 40s.

Dot Sims, a certified master gardener from McCandless and president of the Shaler Garden Club, spent Monday sending emails to dozens of people urging them to cover plants.

"We covered everything. Anything in a pot I brought inside. I walked around this morning. The hydrangeas and daffodils seem OK. We'll see about the blueberry bushes," Sims said.

Growers say it will take a day or two to figure out how much damage peach trees might have received.

"It's probably too early to tell. We'll look at the buds in a day or two. You take the peach bud, cut it in half. If it's brown, it's dead and then it's over for this year," said Calvin McConnell, owner of McConnell's Farms in Independence, Beaver County.

Growing peaches in this area is often a touch-and-go exercise, said McConnell, who remembers losing about three peach crops in the 1980s because of untimely frosts.

"This is really about as far north as peaches can grow. Even up by Interstate 80 would probably be too far north," he said.

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