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Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

Fruit growers reeling from cold snap

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

(Photo)
Mike Leible looks over his peach orchard that was damaged from the cold snap.
SIKESTON -- Two weeks ago Mike Leible's eight-acre peach orchard located off Interstate 57 north in Mississippi County was picture perfect and in full bloom.

"Was is the word," said Leible, co-owner of Dogwood Orchard.

Fruits like apples, peaches, pears and grapes in their early stages of development cannot survive several nights of below-freezing temperatures, which dipped into the high teens and low 20s in parts of the state over the weekend.

"From what I've seen over the weekend, it's a total loss," Leible said about his peach crop, which contains 17 varieties.

Also Leible said he's had a bunch of pecan trees damaged by the extremely cold temperatures.

But Leible isn't alone. Most local fruit growers are suffering total losses of their fruits, thanks to a warm March followed by record low temperatures this month -- a deadly combination for fruits.

"Nada. Zip. No crop. It wiped us out. There are no peaches, no apples, no pears," said David Diebold, owner of Diebold's Orchard in Benton.

Of his 20 varieties of peaches, 35 varieties of apples and eight varieties of pears -- about 100 acres of fruit combined -- the survival rate was zero or 1 percent for each, Diebold said.

"We've had years that approached this but nothing this disastrous," Diebold said.

There also won't be any peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots, plums, apples or pears for sale at Cates Orchard near Dudley.

"All are gone. We can't find a single one," said Janet Johns, who owns the orchard with her husband, Kevin.

In their 21st year running the orchard, the couple have lost peaches but never apples, Johns said.

"You never lose a crop of apples," Johns said. "It's been 40 years or so since there's been a loss for apples."

Although he didn't experience a total loss, strawberry grower Cameron Beggs suffered a big blow to his crop.

"I've never had a year hit this bad. I've got strawberries that would've been ready to pick and were destroyed (by the freeze)," said Beggs, owner of Beggs Berry World in Benton for the past 12 years.

Beggs estimated he suffered an 80 to 100 percent loss on strawberries that weren't protected, a 20 to 30 percent loss on strawberries that were covered and about a 50 percent loss on strawberries where water was used as protection.

Beggs said his next step is trying to maintain what crop he has left. Jerry Smith, co-owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce, remains optimistic about his grape crop. It may be a week or so before he will have an accurate estimate, he said.

"Have we been damaged? Oh, you bet we have. It's going to be pretty bad -- but the complete severity of it, nobody can say yet. We're hoping for the best," said Smith, who owns the winery with his wife, Joannie.

Smith, who has worked in the wine industry for 27 years, said when a grape's first buds that push early are exposed to any frost or freezing temperatures, it "pretty much cooks them.

"So we have a lot of our early buds that have been destroyed," Smith said. But beneath every primary bud is a secondary and tertiary bud, and the severity of crop damage will depend on these buds, Smith said. Damage varies from variety to variety, Smith said, adding blades are used to scrape under the primary buds to see if a green, healthy bud is underneath.

Methods to save fruits aren't effective once crops have faced continuous low temperatures, the growers said.

While Diebold admitted he did have a moment of disappointment after learning about the crop losses, he remains in good spirits, adding crop loss happened often when he was growing up in the '70s and '80s.

"We have to learn to accept what God gives us," Diebold said. "You can either joke, realize and accept it or moan and groan about it."

All growers can do is pray for a better crop next year, Diebold said.

"I don't bother hanging my head down a bit," Diebold said. "God has given us 12 or 15 good crops in a row. Now I guess he's taking his tithe out of them."