Bill Fries hopes his luck continues to hold this week.
“In 35 years, I’ve only had one year where we lost a crop (due to weather). That was within the first 10 years I was doing it,” Fries said Sunday night on the eve of a major winter storm moving into the region. “I’m pretty lucky.”
Fries owns and operates Hickory Grove Orchard, a 10-acre apple, peach and pear orchard and blueberry farm near Linesville that was started in 1948 by his father.
Fries was keeping eyes on both the sky and weather reports Sunday as the region was placed under a winter storm watch by the National Weather Service for today and most of Tuesday.
As much as 15 inches of heavy, wet snow may fall by Tuesday with temperatures only in the 30s and the wind howling at 15 to 25 miles per hour with gusts up to 45 miles an hour.
It all adds up to potential dire consequences for Hickory Grove Orchard.
The apple trees now are in full bloom as are blueberries, making them most susceptible to the weather.
“The weather could wipe out the crop,” said Fries. If this year’s apple and blueberry crops are killed off by the storm, it would mean a loss of about $20,000.
“If it gets down to 32 degrees or below, it might hurt the apples,” said Fries.
The orchard’s peach and pear trees have passed the blossoming stage this year, making them less vulnerable.
This year’s wild spring weather — summer-like temperatures at times in both March and April — caused earlier-than-normal blossoming, Fries said.
Temperatures in the area were in the upper 70s for three days in a row, starting March 20, according the National Weather Service Office in Cleveland. The average daily high temperature in Erie and Crawford counties was 58 degrees, or 14 degrees above normal. Temperatures in eastern Pennsylvania broke above 90 degrees earlier this month.
The higher-than-average temperatures across the region have speeded up some vegetables, too, said Fries’ daughter, Nicole Fries. The farm already has had a couple of cuttings of the farm’s asparagus crop,
“Normally, we don’t have it until May,” said Nicole, the third generation of the family working in the orchard.
This spring’s warm weather has crop farmers itching to start planting, but veterans like Rob Waddell of the Townville area know it’s too early to plant just yet.
“Some are anxious, but you plant by the calendar, not by the weather,” said Waddell, who owns and operates Apple Shamrock farm near Townville with his wife, Chris, and their sons.
“If you put corn in the ground too early and we get a frost or freeze it gets shocked, then you have to replant,” said Waddell.
Some crops like oats and grasses are in, but corn in northwestern Pennsylvania doesn’t get planted until the very end of April and early May.
“I plant corn about the first week of May through the 20th,” he said.
Farmers have to know the weather patterns in their area and plant accordingly, according to Jeff Graybill, an agronomy educator with the Lancaster County office of the Penn State University Agriculture Extension Service.
“Frost damaged corn is not a pretty sight, and while the growing point remains viable and will slowly regrow; a hard frost will burn off the top which can then trap the new growth inside resulting in twisting and very uneven regrowth,” Graybill wrote in the March 20 edition of the Penn State Agricultural Services’ Field Crop News. “If a hard frost occurs, the taller the corn the greater the likelihood that you will need to destroy the stand and replant.”
The abundance of warmer weather earlier than normal also means some insects may appear sooner this year, according to John Tooker, a Penn State entomology specialist.
“Some people fear that a mild winter will beget an insect Armageddon, but I don’t think it will happen,” Tooker said in a recent telephone interview. “Insects are cold-blooded and their life-cycle is driven by the environmental temperature. A lot of species need a cold winter to go into hibernation phase.”
But the bottom line, however, is that the influence of these temperatures on the majority of crop pests Pennsylvania farmers face is not very predictable, according to Tooker.
Many insect pests farmers must deal with like potato leaf hopper and black cutworm are migratory and come to Pennsylvania from southern states riding on the winds in front of storms. The local weather won’t influence their arrival much, Tooker said.
Like all farmers, Fries and Waddell both knows there really isn’t anything they can do about the weather — except sit back and wait.
“You just have to let Mother Nature take her course,” Fries said.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.