Freeze warning means danger for Missouri orchards

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BOONVILLE - A three-day freeze warning for eastern Missouri could put mid-Missouri farmers' crops at risk.

The freeze will most likely fall into the lower to middle 20s Monday night, the teens on Tuesday night, and the 20s again on Wednesday night.

Temperatures like these mean bad business for stone fruit such as peaches, cherries and plums.

"Everything that's bloomed out right now is shot, if it even gets anywhere close to what we're looking at, those'll be gone," said Bruce Arnett, owner of The Peach Tree Farm.

As of Monday, around 18 percent of Arnett's peach trees have bloomed, and he expects most of those buds and flowers to die with the freeze. That means about 20,000 pounds of peaches lost.

Arnett has been in the peach business for 27 years and said freezes like this are expected and unavoidable when farming stone fruit in Missouri. Last year, The Peach Tree Farm lost considerably more of its yield.

"We lost about 80 percent of the crop last year. It was one of those weird freezes in early April that hit us hard," Arnett said.

Though Arnett and his family have other means of income if they have a low peach yield, a freeze like this means less peaches for consumers, some of which travel almost 70 miles for Arnett's fruit. 

"People pull in and expect us to have peaches, and I don't have 'em. I can't pull 'em off a shelf like a grocery store," Arnett said. "I only sell what I raise, and if I don't have 'em, I just don't."

Warmer weather in February this year has farmers worried for freezes to come. Crops felt the 70 degree days, began to bloom early and are now more vulnerable to spring freezes.

"It got everything jump started. Everything is quite a ways ahead of where it should be," Arnett said.

Vineyards in central Missouri aren't feeling as much pressure from this freeze, though freezes like this later in the year could hurt wine production.

"Any time that we have warm weather like we did this year, we're always concerned that our leaves are going to come out before the last freeze," said Cory Bomgaars, Vice President of Winery Operations at Les Bourgeois Vineyards.

Les Bourgeois saw major damage to its vines in April of 2007 when a surprise freeze brought temperatures down to 19 degrees.

"It wiped out most of our vines," Bomgaars said. "If the timing is correct for the vine, one frost evening or two or three below-freezing days can do just as much damage."

One thing Les Bourgeouis does to retain crop yield is diversify its vineyard locations.

"We have vineyards in southern Missouri, eastern Missouri, western Missouri, so we usually can balance out where the frost events don't happen at all the locations at the same time," Bomgaars said. 

Arnett isn't too confident about this year's peach yield.

"They really shouldn't be blooming now, they should be blooming three weeks from now," Arnett said. "They're blooming so early, that if we don't get hit with a hard freeze by [April] it'll be a miracle."

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