Mar 28, 2012
Early spring warmth causing growers sleepless nights

For many of the Midwest and Eastern states, spring weather arrived early. Most areas are three to four weeks ahead of schedule in terms of plant growth and bloom, according to university Extension offices.

Such conditions can lead to a number of problems. The major points of concern are listed below, along with advice for dealing with them.

Labor

For asparagus growers, the early warmth is causing labor concerns. Read more about how early asparagus could lead to millions of dollars in losses here.

Markets

Schacht in Ohio said the strawberry crop is ahead of schedule. Like growers in New York, however, those in Ohio are approaching the planting of annuals like sweet corn and tomatoes on a typical schedule, one with less of a chance of being caught by a damaging frost.

“The new concern is how uniform the state is in the stage of spring,” Schacht said. “Producers from the Ohio River Valley area may not be that much in advance of the northern areas. We may see excesses in some crops and short seasons in others.”

Frost/freeze

Damage from frost or freeze depends on the development stage of a fruit crop. Due to the warm weather, many of the fruit trees are ahead of schedule and susceptible to injury, said Mark Longstroth, small fruit educator, Michigan State University.

“Unfortunately, spring freezes are almost a certainty,” Longstroth said. “Fruit growers need to constantly assess the stage of development of their crops and the susceptibility to freeze injury. During this unusual spell of warm weather, fruit trees will develop quickly and the critical temperature will rise from the teens to the 20s, to levels just below freezing at bloom time.”

Click here for a chart showing critical temperatures for spring fruit development.

Larry Eckhardt of Eckhardt Farms, Stephentown, N.Y., and president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, said growers in his area are quite nervous about the early arrival of warm weather, but that for the most part it hasn’t really affected their plans yet.

“As vegetable growers, there is not a lot of people really jumping full force into anything right now,” he said. “Vegetable growers tend to watch the calendar more than the weather outside this early in the year.”

Lisa L. Schacht of Schacht Family Farm in Canal Winchester, Ohio, said Ohio growers with perennial crops are following the crop’s lead and hoping they won’t have issues later. Schacht is also president of the Ohio Producer Growers and Marketers Association.

“It’s mostly out of our control,” Schacht said. “My vice president, Mike Hirsch, is a peach and nectarine grower. He said it will be better to have fruit developing rather than still in bloom if a cold snap hits. This will mean scarring is possible, but not total bloom loss.”

Disease

Another issue with early warm weather is disease.

“I haven’t even finished pruning my peach trees and I’m already on my second spray for scab,” said Nathan Milburn of Milburn Orchards in Elkton, Md.

Penn State University reported high numbers of mature apple scab ascospores on March 22. Those numbers are normal for late April-early May, according to a report. Read more about Penn State’s findings here.

Pests

Penn State researchers are strongly advising growers to place pheromone traps for codling moth early, and to be observant for other pests such as Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. Growers are also being cautioned to protect native pollinators. Read more about Penn State’s recommendations here.

Cornell University entomologist, Art Agnello was wondering how arthropods would react to the early warm up. He suggested oil spray for control. Read about his recommendations here.

Nutrition

Early spring growth has also spurred questions about the application of fertilizer. Eric Hanson, horticulture professor, Michigan State University, said nitrogen applications that normally might be applied all at once might be best suited for a split application this season. Applying 30-50 percent of your nitrogen now and saving the rest until after you have determined any frost damage may be the most prudent action, he said.

“A second question is whether nutrition can improve the frost tolerance of fruit trees,” Hanson said. “There are no hard and fast recommendations, but there are some interesting observations. Foliar sprays of urea may enhance frost tolerance.”

More advice on early spring nutrition concerns is available here.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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