Temperatures will start to rise, and the long, cold winter will begin to recede — but for a lot of local farms, the damage already may have been done.
The extreme lows reached this year could impact crops, timing and pricing for agricultural businesses throughout the region, experts said.
“We haven’t had anything like this in 20, 25 years,” said Atlantic County Agricultural Agent Gary Pavlis. “I know back in '88 — Super Bowl Sunday, I remember — it went down to minus-15 (degrees) in Atlantic County. ... But that was a one-time event.”
This winter, in contrast, has seen “multiple events,” including record low temperatures thanks to weather patterns such as the polar vortex and numerous snowstorms.
“And a couple of times, it was really warm,” Pavlis added. “The fluctuation in temperature is really, really tough. When it gets warm, it brings plants out of their hardiness. And when the temperatures go back down again, that really makes it (difficult).”
One of the crops Pavlis said was greatly affected in the past by freezes — and which he is worried about this year — are grapes at wineries. Fellow Atlantic County Agricultural Agent Richard VanVranken said some varieties of grapes wineries grow in South Jersey are “much less cold tolerant than some other, hardier varieties.”
“There are some concerns that a few of those got hurt,” he said.
At the Tomasello Winery in Hammonton, owner Charlie Tomasello said there’s really not much they can do to protect the grapes until spring.
“We’ve stopped pruning the grapes and are just waiting for the weather to warm,” Tomasello said. “You don’t see the degree of damage until you see the buds. We do have some damage, but we’re not sure how much. It’s extremely difficult to establish that until we get a grape count.”
Covering them was not an option, Tomasello said.
“We have 70 acres, and you can’t cover 70 acres,” he said.
Agricultural officials are less concerned about crops such as blueberries, peaches and apples, VanVranken said. Those crops are “a little bit hardier,” he said.
“We did have a few nights where it was getting below zero, but most of the work that we have seen in the past indicates those crops can go to 10- to 20-below zero,” he said. “Most of those crops have backup resources. They tend to overproduce flowers.”
Dennis Doyle, general manager of Atlantic Blueberry Co. in Hamilton Township, said that as of one week ago, “we don’t see any real concerns at this point in time.”
But, he added, they had not yet checked the plants following this week’s low temperatures.
“That was really a strange cold front that came in,” Doyle said of Monday and Tuesday nights, when temperatures reached 6 degrees overnight at Atlantic City International Airport. “It’s so unusual for it to be that cold this time of year. But to be quite honest, I’m not sure there’s going to be effects.”
Mark Ehlenfeldt, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and Rutgers University, spoke at the Blueberry Open House in Hammonton on Thursday, where growers heard from researchers on all aspects of growing the fruit.
“People have been concerned about how much cold we have had, and have we had any damage?” Ehlenfeldt said. “Our research shows that if buds are unopened and tight, they are 50 percent hardy to at least (negative) 4 degrees. It varies by variety, but this is an average.
“It certainly doesn’t look like we’ve had any significant damage. I worry more about a cold spell later toward the spring,” when the buds have started to open.
Despite the record lows, this is more a “normal winter” than the ones South Jersey farmers have experienced for the past five to 10 years, VanVranken said.
That means farmers will have a “more normal bloom time” for crops such as blueberries, apples and peaches, he said. That should start to happen “much later this month,” he said.
“The very early crops that we’ve had for the past couple of years are not going to happen,” VanVranken said. “How that impacts the farmers as far as the market goes is anybody’s guess. We never know what the market conditions are going to be.”
If New Jersey’s crops come out late and harvests from competing agricultural states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina start to run out, market prices could spike, he said.
“Which is good, but we have no way of knowing right now,” VanVranken said.
Still, VanVranken said, early crops and harvests are good-case scenarios. South Jersey farmers have for years been trying to get crops to market as early as possible and extend the fall harvest, he said.
That helps South Jersey farmers compete with states such as Georgia, where a growing blueberry industry represents a new and increasing threat to blueberry farmers here, he said.
Doyle, at least, said there was little they could do to combat the weather.
“We’re kind of out there just like everybody else,” Doyle said. “There really isn’t a whole bunch anybody can do. We’re all at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
Staff Writer Michelle Brunetti Post contributed to this report.
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