- The Washington Times - Monday, April 19, 2010

BOSTON | Frank Whittemore has been growing fruit for a lifetime and can’t remember a year when the buds started peeking out on his 30,000 apples trees so early in the spring. And that’s what has him worried.

“We’re just praying that we don’t get some really, really cold weather over the next few weeks,” said Whittemore, 85, co-owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, N.H. “It would be a disaster for us.”

While most residents of the Northeast were enjoying the recent spate of warm weather, apple growers fretted about an unprecedented early bloom that could leave the nascent fruit vulnerable to a dangerous cold snap. And farmers across the country fear that other fruits, including cherries, blueberries and plums, could also fall victim to frost.

Orchard managers and fruit experts said a balmy early spring — the mercury climbed to a record-shattering 92 degrees in parts of New England on April 7 — combined with an early snow melt and heavy rain in March has trees blossoming two to three weeks ahead of schedule on average. That leaves plenty of time on the calendar for the region’s notoriously unpredictable weather to strike back with a killer freeze.

“There will be a couple of weeks where the growers, I think, will be pretty nervous,” said Russell Powell, executive director of the New England Apple Growers Association, which represents hundreds of commercial orchards in the region.

The danger with the accelerated growing pattern, Mr. Powell explained, was that once the tiny buds push out, they can easily be killed off by a hard and sudden frost.

And it’s not just apples that are at risk. Peaches and plums that generally blossom slightly ahead of apples are also off to a much faster start this season. Even blueberries, just starting their growth cycle, could be susceptible to cold.

A hard frost is not uncommon in New England in the last two weeks of April and not unheard of in early May.

Snow showers were forecast for the weekend in parts of New England, though temperatures were not expected to fall much below freezing.

Experts say a drop in temperature to 28 degrees could damage 10 percent of the crop and a drop of a few more degrees could damage up to 90 percent of the crop. The stakes are high: The six New England states combined to produce 182 million pounds of apples commercially in 2008, the last year for which the United States Department of Agriculture had final statistics.

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