Virginians have enjoyed an unusually warm winter, with temperatures rising into the 70’s and 80’s in some places, but for the state’s fruit farmers it’s been a nightmare – raising fears of crop damage in the weeks to come.
Over the weekend, the ground froze as temperatures dropped into the low 20’s in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is where the Chiles family planted orchards more than a hundred years ago. Back then, Cynthia Chiles says, you could expect peaches in mid-June, but now it’s hard to say.
“This year we’re two weeks ahead of last year, and last year was two weeks ahead of normal," she explains. "The trees basically have gotten confused. It’s been in the 70’s and 80’s – that means it’s time to bloom and time to make fruit.”
And then, as happened this past weekend, a freeze hits overnight.
“Some of the little peaches will turn black right away if they’ve really gotten zapped," Chiles says, "but some of them will present like they’re still alive and in another couple of weeks we’ll start to see them fall off, so it’s actually several weeks before we can make a really good assessment.”
Cynthia Chiles notes that the orchard can withstand the loss of some blossoms.
“In a normal year, after the tress have all bloomed, we have to thin a big percentage of them off the trees so that the ones that do go will get some size to them. Otherwise the trees couldn’t support all the blooms.”
Still, the orchard is pulling out all the stops to protect its fruit. There are, for example, a few giant fans mounted between the trees.
“If the wind is blowing, we can’t use those, and if the wind is blowing that’s good, because the ice can’t settle on the trees easily, but when it’s really still we can run those machines, and it can raise the temperature sometimes two or three degrees, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’re borderline between freezing and not freezing it can make a huge difference.”
And ground-level irrigation can also protect the blooms above from temperatures below 32 degrees.
“First of all the water being pumped is warmer than the air temperature, so just the water being there will give off a little bit of heat, and then as the water freezes, that chemical process gives off some BTUs, so we’re creating the heat underneath the tree and letting it rise up.”
The farm has covered its strawberries with plastic to protect them from the cold, but as those plants mature, Cynthia Chiles says they may have to spray water from above.
“You’re kind of doing the igloo effect. You’re encapsulating them in ice, and they actually stay warm under the ice.”
These tactics provide a sense of control and hope, but in the age of climate change, Chiles sometimes resorts to an old-fashioned approach to farming.
“We decided there’s no normal anymore," Chiles says. "We do what we can, and then we sit back and hope and pray, and that’s all you can do.”
Chiles will open it's Carter Mountain orchard in Charlottesville at the end of March and will welcome visitors to its Crozet farm in mid April.