After the Easter Freeze of 2007, the droughts of 2011-12, and last year’s precocious spring, Arkansas’ fruit growers are okay with a normal year.
“We’re just a little bit more normal this year,” said Steve Morgan, owner of Peach Pickin’ Paradise near Lamar in Johnson County.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service pegged the 2012 value of Arkansas’ blueberry, peach, and grape crops at $6.54 million. Add tomatoes and watermelons, and the total rises to more than $31.4 million.
The freeze of 2007, “just wiped things out,” he said. “Last year, we were extremely early, but the weather was nice to us. We had a good crop. Everything ripened two weeks before you expected it.”
“This year, I think we’re a little more on track,” Morgan said. “The blooms are two … maybe three weeks behind what they were last year.”
Spring is a nervous time
Early spring is a nervous time for fruit growers. The plants flower at a time when frost or freezing temperatures are still a danger. For example, according to National Weather Service records, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that the last freeze in Little Rock would be March 22, and the last frost on April 4.
This year was no exception.
“We had 25 degrees three mornings in a row,” Morgan said. “Some of the blooms were open, but most were still closed. We made it through that cold spell with only a few blooms thinned.”
At the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Fruit Research Station in Clarksville, station Director Dan Chapman said his peaches began blooming the week of March 18 and the plums before that. Other early bloomers on the station groups are apricots and some highland blueberries.
“This cool weather has slowed them up, which has helped prevent any cold damage on the flowers,” he said.
Burned in SWA
Some fruit trees in Southwest Arkansas, which tends to be warmer this time of year than other parts of the state, were hammered during last week’s cold snap.
“The early peaches and nectarines got burned pretty bad, but that was just in the earliest varieties,” said Terry Kirkpatrick, a plant pathologist based at the Southwest Extension and Research Center at Hope. “At my house, it got down to 27 one night, 25 another night and then 28 a third night. That 25-degree night was probably the one that got them.”
On the plus side, early blueberries “lost a few blooms, but they were just thinned a little,” he said.
In northwest Arkansas, “we had gotten so used to having an early spring, and spring 2013 is turning out to be more normal spring,” said Washington County Extension Staff Chair Berni Kurz. “The native serviceberry tree is just now starting to bloom and dogwoods are not showing color yet. The ornamental callery pears have done their thing but the edible varieties are just starting.
“Strawberries are eager to start jumping with early blooms showing with first fruit set,” he said. “Apples, blueberries, and blackberries are still tight waiting for the warmth to stay. Peaches for the most part are looking good. No frost damage to report yet.”
In Boone County, on the Missouri border, “we’re almost there. Still too cool yet,” said Mike McClintock, county agent for the U of A System Division of Agriculture. However, in a local high-tunnel setup, the grower is picking strawberries, he said.
Warm temps ahead
Next door in Marion County, the peach trees are blooming, said County Extension Agent Brian See.
“For the next 10 days, we are forecast for a high of the mid-60s to lower 70s and the lowest low to be 39,” he said. “Unless the upcoming storms are really violent, I think this could be good for fruit. Also, if we can make it past April 20th, the last freeze date, without a freeze, we will be golden – or red – depending on the variety.”
Near Hope, a city whose watermelons were its claim to fame before Bill Clinton was elected president, watermelon seedlings are still in the greenhouse, said Hempstead County Extension Agent Steven Sheets.
Just when those young plants go to the field “depends on the weather, but should be middle of April at the earliest,” he said.
For more information on fruit growing, contact Lonoke County Cooperative Extension Office at 501-676-3124.