ALBANY, N.Y. — Anxious farmers in fruit-growing regions of the Great Lakes, Northeast and even parts of the South kept misters, smudge pots and helicopters in their arsenals as a cold front approached from Canada, threatening to freeze trees and vines overnight that had budded early amid record-setting warmth.
At risk are this season's harvests of wine grapes, apples, apricots, cherries, pears, peaches and possibly strawberries. If the freeze causes damage, consumers would likely notice it on a regional scale at farm stands, farmers' markets and other local outlets.
Cameron Hosmer was counting on a helicopter to mix warmer air with the cold at ground level Tuesday morning at his 60-acre vineyard in New York's Finger Lakes region. He worried most about his French-American hybrid grape De Chaunac, which are farthest along with half-inch buds, but noted he and other growers were at nature's mercy.
"We're not in charge," he said. "We're guests here. You're going to have to be prepared for disappointments."
The National Weather Service has issued hard freeze and frost warnings and watches in a swath from the central Great Lakes to the East Coast. Temperatures could drop as low as the mid-teens across a swath of states including Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia.
"This is absolutely the earliest we've seen," Cornell University horticulture professor Susan Brown said of the combination of freezing weather and plants that have come alive early. Most threatened overnight are apricots, which are already in full bloom.
"They're going to be toast," she said.
Seeds planted early in home gardens should be fine, experts said, but tender ornamentals and early-blooming flowers like tulips and daffodils can be covered with sheets or newspapers to give them a good chance of making it through the night. Containers should be brought indoors.
The experts say it's hard at this point to project the effect on fruit supplies or consumer prices. But two of the nation's largest fruit-growing states — California (apricots) and Washington (apples) — will avoid the cold snap.
In Michigan, where peach trees are flowering, blueberries are blooming and asparagus is poking through, farms and wineries in low spots along the Lake Michigan shore will be most at risk because the cold air will sink, said Keith Creagh, director of agriculture and rural development department.
Some farmers are using smudge pots — flaming kettles that throw off heat and move the cold air — but some damage is inevitable. Others are using overheard sprinklers to mist their plants with the hope of creating protective ice around tender buds and shoots.
In Methuen, Mass., apple grower Bill Fitzgerald said he'll probably worry himself to sleep tonight. He figures he'll be fine if the temperature stays around 27 degrees. But if it dips to the low end of the forecast in his area, about 21 degrees, his crop could be nearly wiped out.
"There's actually tremendous concern," Fitzgerald said. "If we come out of this OK tonight, we're going to have slid by the skin of our teeth, as they say."
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