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Freeze Puts Central Illinois Fruit Crops In Jeopardy

Fruit frozen on tree
Nam Y. Huh
/
AP
A frozen young fruit is covered by snow Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Chicago.

UPDATED 4:20 p.m. | Fruit farmers in central Illinois are worried a freeze Tuesday night could destroy their crops.

According to the National Weather Service, a Freeze Warning is in effect from 1 a.m. Wednesday to 9 a.m. Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to drop into the upper 20s. Rain and snow also are expected Tuesday.

Terra Brockman said apples, peaches and pears at her family farm in Eureka started to blossom earlier this spring because of warmer weather in March.

“There’s a good chance depending on how cold it gets and how long the cold lasts overnight and how many nights, we might not have any tree fruit,” Brockman said. “That is a sad thing.”

Brockman said some of the other fruits grown at the farm -- strawberries, blueberries and raspberries -- can likely be salvaged.

“Some of those will be OK. Some can be protected with row covers. There are some things we can do and not have a total loss even on the fruit side,” she said.

Brockman said most of their vegetable crops, including broccoli, kale and onions, are still stored in a hoophouse, so they don't expect any vegetable loss.

“We haven’t even thought about getting out warm-season stuff like tomatoes, peppers,” she said. “None of that is out of the greenhouse.”

Brockman said the rhubarb and chives they've planted can handle the cold.

Extension expertise

University of Illinois horticulture expert Kelly Allsup said in the bud-stage fruit trees are super susceptible to late freezes.

“Now, sometimes if it's already in an open flower, it can actually withstand the freeze more than it can as a bud when it comes to fruit trees,” said Allsup. “If somebody has already planted tender annuals or warm season crops, like tomatoes and peppers, then they need to cover them.”

The most common fruit trees in Central Illinois are peach and apple trees. Peach trees are typically more at risk.

Allsup said tender annuals, like petunias and basil, or warm season crops, like tomatoes, are in need of coverage.

“Now they (growers) can cover them with a bed sheet or frost cloth. They can't use plastic. The plastic conducts the cold temperatures,” said Allsup. “Maybe strawberries could benefit from a little bit of straw, but otherwise I wouldn't worry about your average landscape plants.”

For cardboard boxes, Allsup said to make sure you take them off in the morning. Cardboard boxes can do a better job than bed sheets because they don’t touch the plant directly. Watering your plants the night before could also help, according to Michigan State University

Wet soil holds on to heat better than dry soil. 

Now a frost is not the same as a freeze. When plants freeze, the water inside them forms ice crystals.These crystals can attack plant tissues, hurting buds and flowers, but rarely does a freeze kill a plant.

“Tonight, it's not the warm spring weather that we're looking for, but these plants are gonna have to go with getting protected or just take a little bit of a beating, but they'll rebound,” said Allsup. 

For fruit-bearing trees the extent of damage is the lack of actual fruit being produced, but the trees won’t die.

In 2012, she met a Champaign apple grower whose trees became fruitless after a late freeze. If this happens Allsup says a good crisis shouldn’t go to waste.

“It gave him a little time off to address apple pests. We want apples, but there are so many pests on growing apples that it can be a very difficult crop to grow,” said Allsup. 

Allsup said peach trees are particularly hard to grow. 

“It's fun to experiment, but knowing that you're probably going to have a late freeze and those peaches are going to be done and they're never going to produce,” said Allsup. “There are some cool season crops that can actually take a little bit of a freeze, like your lettuces and your carrots and your parsleys and your cilantros ... those can actually handle a little bit of frost and cooler temperatures.”

Cool season crops are planted earlier in the spring. The last frost date in McLean County is April 30, but Allsup teaches people May 15.

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