Alabama fruit producers are keeping their eyes on the thermometers, but professionals with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System say producers are used to dealing with cold weather.
Dr. Edgar Vinson, an Alabama Extension fruit specialist who works closely with the state’s peach producers, said most are not worried about the frigid weather.
“This season’s cold weather has kept peaches and other tree fruits dormant,” Vinson said. “When trees are dormant, cold damage is less of a threat.”
Cold is Important
Peach trees and most deciduous fruit trees need cold to produce a good harvest.
Jim Pitts with Auburn University’s Chilton Regional Research and Extension Center said that getting adequate chill hours is critical for peach production.
“Trees accumulate chill hours between 32° and 45° F,” said Pitts. “Currently, about 90 percent of peach trees in the state have gotten adequate chill hours.”
Pitts said Chilton center researchers have logged about 800 chill hours.
“We would like to get 1,000 chill hours,” said Pitts. “Additionally, we would like to see it stay cool for another month. Right now, it won’t take much warm weather to get trees to break dormancy and start moving toward bloom.”
Concerns are higher along the Gulf Coast where satsumas are raised. Satsuma, a type of mandarin (a classification of citrus) similar to a tangerine, is one of the more cold vulnerable tree fruits raised in Alabama.
James Miles, a regional Extension agent based in Mobile, said producers were proactive in guarding their investments.
“Growers used overhead irrigation to ice the trees. Growers that initiate this technique are committed to keeping the system running until all the ice has melted. This could easily be two to five days.”
Miles said using irrigation to put a protective ice layer on the trees is one of the most common freeze protection measures that citrus growers use for prolonged freeze events.
Strawberries are vulnerable to cold, but Doug Chapman, a regional Extension agent in north Alabama, said strawberry producers have their crops covered with floating row covers.
“Most growers use one layer of row covering, but some producers are adopting a practice used further north—covering strawberries with two layers of covering,” said Chapman. “Using two covers allows growers to protect plants and to capture ground heat and keep it in the plant canopy at night.”
Growers who use two covers peel the top layer back during the day to allow for better light penetration and gas respiration for the strawberry plant. The top cover will be returned at night.
Snow and Ice Threat to Greenhouses
While producers who raise their crops outdoors may not be overly worried, it’s a different story for those raising crops such as strawberries, lettuces and tomatoes in greenhouses, said regional Extension commercial horticulture agent Chip East.
“The cold weather is eating into their profits because they are spending more dollars to keep greenhouses at the correct temperatures.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, East said, even worse is snow and ice.
The extra weight of snow and ice can easily cave in a greenhouse, destroying the crop inside as well as the house.
“Growers can’t risk their investment both in the plants and the actual structures so they will be raking and sweeping the snow off those greenhouses.”