Cold weather, frost deals a blow to some Hampton Roads farmers


Debbie Ott knelt down in a field of strawberry plants and cupped the dead flowers. The one next to her was a little battered but still alive, having made it through the frigid night and morning that left frost on windshields.

And so it went as Ott looked over the rows of plants at Wood's Orchard in Hampton Friday. "All of the dead leaves will have to come off," she said, "as well as these dead blooms."

Cold temperatures during the first and second weeks of March had strawberry growers in Hampton Roads worried, with some saying they'd lost sections of their strawberry crops after a week of frigid weather and a frost Thursday night. Other fruit crops fared better but not by much, local farmers said.

"We're just trying to keep what we have," Wayne Griffin, of Griffin Farms in Suffolk said. "Everybody has been trying different methods to keep their strawberry blooms."

Griffin hid his strawberry plants under two and three layers of row covers — long swaths of breathable fabric or plastic — to protect them. He used water sprinkler irrigation under the row covers, a process that provides frost damage protection because water gives off heat when it changes from a liquid to a solid, or freezes, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Before the cold weather, growers reported many strawberry plants had already blossomed and some had produced baby berries, the department said in a news release.

Griffin said he knows he lost some blooms and baby strawberries. "We even got some leaf burn — that's how cold it was. I could go out there now and cut a plant and see what's what, but I really don't want to know."

In talking to his peers, Griffin said several reported strawberry plants lost to the harsh weather change. He said warm weather in February moved the crops up, perhaps too early. Even strawberry varieties made to bloom later in strawberry season balked against the cold weather, he added.

"I don't think we'll have many berries for wholesale this year," Griffin said.

James City County farmer Bill Apperson said the frost claimed 1 to 2 percent of his strawberry crop. It had a more devastating impact on his blueberries — 25 percent were lost. The asparagus on his farm was killed but will grow back. The blackberries are fine, he said.

Apperson says the frost hurt, but "I'm more worried about the first week in April. I think we've got more cold, even freezing, weather coming."

Carolyn Lilley grows strawberries, pumpkins and winter squash as well as maintaining a corn maze at two farms, Lilley Farms Strawberries in Suffolk and Bennett's Pasture Road in Chesapeake.

Lilley said the strawberry farm didn't use row covers to shield their strawberries, or irrigation tactics. They let the chips fall where they may. Their pumpkin patch is larger, and the farmers also run a landscaping business.

"We're just hanging in there. There's not a lot we can do about it," Lilley said.

For Wood's Farm Orchard, which also has peach trees, the cold weather was a double blow, also damaging the small copse of trees behind rows of strawberry plants. State officials estimated tree fruit would not fare well in the cold.

The early warm temperatures caused many of the fruit trees, especially cherries and peaches, to bloom early in the region, Isle of Wight state Cooperative Extension Agent Janet Spencer said.

"Any blooms on the trees were most likely killed/injured as a result of the cold, therefore affecting the total fruit that tree will be able to produce," Spencer said. "Warm temperatures followed by very cold temperatures is always a concern to the fruit growers or even row crop producers if they have already planted their crops."

Farmers could lose a lot of fruit or an entire crop on those trees, the state's agriculture department said in a statement.

"This year's weather patterns are not behaving according to the norm," said state agriculture Commissioner Sandra Adams, "and any farmer out there will tell you that we won't know about this year's harvest for many weeks.

"But with their typical resiliency, they all say they are hoping for the best and will deal with the worst if and when it comes."

In Virginia, strawberry season usually runs from about April to June. Strawberries could be available for picking in early May, farmers said.

Canty can be reached by phone at 757-247-4832.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette