For John Clark, professor of fruit culture and breeding at the University of Arkansas, Easter weekend’s killing frost has caused a particularly deep loss.
“From a research standpoint, it’s a devastating year,” he via cell phone Tuesday as he drove away from the university’s Fruit Substation near Clarksville, Ark. He and Dan Chapman, resident director of the station, had spent the day assessing the damage. “Unfortunately, in this case, we lost all of our peach hybridization. We’re talking hundreds of hours of work. We couldn’t find anything alive.
“There’s a chance some research on grapes and blackberries might be salvaged, but it will all depend on whether both can produce secondary buds on new growth,” he said.
It’s no better anywhere else in northwest Arkansas, where it got down into the teens in some places.
Chapman said the manager of Roundtop Orchard south of Conway, Ark., reported losing blackberries, peaches, apples and grapes.
Chapman said a fruit grower near the Clarksville substation told him he used sprinklers to fight the cold in his strawberries, but all of his crop looks damaged.
“Being in the mid 20s for so long for two nights is what hurt them,” he said.
Clark said he spoke with James Moore, who established the fruit breeding program at University of Arkansas in 1964 and had been breeding fruit long before arriving in Fayetteville.
“I called Jim Moore. He had never seen anything worse than 50 percent crop loss in 50 years of working on high bush blueberries,” Clark said.
Of his trip to Clarksville, Clark said blackberries were the biggest surprise.
“From very tight, small buds, smaller than the tip of your finger all the way to open flowers, every single one I looked at was dead. I couldn’t believe it. The damage is far worse than I would’ve predicted at this stage of development.
“I have one word for the blueberries: sad,” he said. “I looked at this farm near Fayetteville. I couldn’t find even small buds that were alive. That crop is a total loss.”
Most of the grape crop at Clarksville was lost, but there was hope for the muscadines, Clark said.
“The muscadines are Southern and not as hardy as northern types like the Concord,” Clark said. “But they seemed to have fared the best of all the grapes. A number of the shoots were an inch long and appeared to have survived. There will be some crop production.”
Chapman said, “In the northwest and Arkansas River Valley, definitely peaches, plums, apricots, cherries are gone. Even if they looked good today, they might not look good next week. Some grape varieties may come back and produce. “
Clark said Arkansas residents can determine if their fruit crops survived.
“People may want to check all of these fruits, if their temperatures fell below 30,” Clark said. “With a sharp knife or scalpel, cut the fruit, flower or flower bud lengthwise and look for browning of tissue. That usually means that it’s dead.”
One fruit farmer who was hit hard is Ples Spradley, who had 2 acres of blueberries in Lonoke County. Spradley is also Extension’s pesticide education specialist.
“The first night of the weekend, it got below freezing. The next night it got down to 28,” he said. “My blueberries were on the tail end of flowering. It looks like most of the immature berries were frozen. It’ll take a day or two to assess the damage.
“I’m not willing to say I’ve lost my entire crop, but it looked rough Sunday morning. Fortunately, I’m not counting on it to feed my family, but it’s always tough.”
Spradley said there have been other times he thought he’d lost his crop, but he ended up with “a pretty good amount of fruit.” But he admitted that this time was worse. It’s about as late and cold as it has ever been for two consecutive nights, he said.
His blueberries weren’t the only victim on his farm. He also lost 5 acres of pecans.