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March 2, 2017

Warm winter has orchard, vineyard owners on edge

As in any kind of farming, there is a potential to be completely wiped out in a freeze. Farming’s not as glamorous as the brochures make it appear.
— Bill Green, Markham orchardist
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Staff Journalist
The warmest February on record has caused thousands of pink peach buds to develop two weeks ahead of schedule at Hartland Orchard at Markham.

Bill Green expects his family’s peach trees will start blooming early next week, making them more vulnerable to a hard frost, which Northern Fauquier typically experiences in late April or early May.

The unusually warm weather has Fauquier orchardists and grape growers on edge.

“There’s no problem with the plants coming out this early, but the chances of getting a hard frost is really high,” said Fauquier Extension Agent Tim Ohlwiler, who specializes in horticulture.

“It’s something we are concerned about, because the trees and vines are starting to push buds and progress toward flower,” Mr. Ohlwiler said. “If we get a cold snap again, things could freeze a lot easier . . . . They are less winter-hardy right now.”

Hartland, a 400-acre farm, along the north side of Interstate 66, has pick-your-own apples, peaches and other fruit. The orchard represents a large portion of the family business.

“Right now we are at least two weeks ahead of normal development for this time of year,” Mr. Green said. “In recent years, that’s pretty normal. All our winters seem to be milder. We’re sort of used to things coming out earlier. All of this will be fine if we don’t get a killing freeze.”

If the area gets that freeze, the Markham farm could lose half its peach crop, depending on how many blossoms die.

“We have a 23-degree temperature projected for Saturday morning,” Mr. Green said. “That won’t hurt them. But, if we got below 20 degrees at this stage, that would hurt us.”

Normally this time of year, the buds “should be almost completely dormant still . . . maybe a little bit of bud swell,” Mr. Ohlwiler said. “I wouldn’t expect to see any pink or white blossoms or leaves starting to show through. We shouldn’t see any of that now, and we are.”

With an average temperature of 44.8 degrees, last month ranks as the warmest February on record at Dulles International Airport, according to the National Weather Service, which has tracked the data there since 1963. Washington, D.C., experienced the warmest February since the agency started keeping records in 1872.

“The blackberries and blueberry buds have swollen up, so they’re in danger,” said Brian Green, Bill’s nephew, who grows berries at Hartland. “It makes us all a little jumpy and nervous.”

Brian Green foresees the strawberry season starting a month early this year because of the warm weather.

Typically, strawberries would remain dormant this time of year, ready to pick at the end of May or early June, he said. This year we’re “probably looking at strawberry season starting the end of April.”

Bill Green declined to say how money it could cost if frost ruined half his peach and apple crops.

“I might have to get another job,” he joked. “I don’t have any control over it. I don’t worry. I do take what steps I can, but there’s nothing I can do for a cold night.

“I have enough orchards in different places,” he continued. “It’s unusual to get all frozen out. Hail is another big concern. I’ve had hail hit one orchard, but not hit another across the road. Being spread out across different areas” helps.

Last year, two hard freezes at 22 degrees on April 6 and 10 cost him about half his peach and apple crops.

“We usually get between 3 and 4 bushels of peaches per tree a year,” Mr. Green said. “Last year we had about 2½ bushels per tree, and we were pretty lucky.”

Hartland grows peaches on about 25 acres and apples on about 35 acres.

“As in any kind of farming, there is a potential to be completely wiped out in a freeze,” he said. “Farming’s not as glamorous as the brochures make it appear.”

But, Mr. Green and his family remain hopeful. If a hard frost doesn’t come, the Markham orchard could have a big fruit crop this year.

“If you have a light fruiting year, it’s very prone to have a much heavier crop the following year,” Mr. Green said.

Fauquier wine grape growers seem less concerned with the warm winter and haven’t seen any blossoms on vines.

“Grapes have secondary and tertiary buds. You’ll get a secondary grape crop if the first bud is frozen, but it won’t be as high,” Mr. Ohlwiler said. “It will bloom again, but your yield will be lower.”

Jim Law, owner and vintner at Linden Vineyards, said: “If it ends up being a normal March or April, we won’t have a problem. The vines are tender now . . . . Intrinsically, they’ve become more susceptible to future cold damage. If the weather continues to be warm, we will have an earlier bud break, but we’re nowhere near that now.

“Here, our first bud break is usually April 20,” Mr. Law said. “I would be surprised if it is that late this year.”

He has recorded weather observations at the vineyard since 1985.

“In all those years, this is the earliest we’ve had the peepers (tiny amphibians singing), crocuses and daffodils.”

Hypothetically, if a large part of Mr. Law’s grape crop gets wiped out in a frost, he has a backup plan.

“In my wine cellar, we have approximately one year’s worth of bottled wine and one year’s worth of wine in barrels,” he said. “If one year our production was cut in half . . . we could even that out.”

Johnny Puckett, the owner of Rogers Ford Farm Winery near Sumerduck, said the warm weather has increased his revenue for the month by 35 percent, compared to last February.

Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Mr. Puckett’s winery had $20,000 in sales last month.

“From an economic standpoint, it’s been fantastic,” he said. “It’s like October . . . . February is historically my lowest month in terms of revenue and people in the door. It’s been great for business . . . but maybe a little too early to see what it’s going to do to the vineyard.”

Mr. Puckett has seen no buds break on his vines yet because he grows Vidal Blanc and Petit Verdot grapes, both late budding.

The winemaker usually waits until March to prune the vines, but this year he started in February.

Mr. Law agrees that growers will have to wait to see the effects of the unusual weather on grape vines.

“Right now, we are ahead of schedule,” he said. “If it’s a cold March, it can go back to normal, or it could be the earliest bud break on record. It all depends on March.”

Brian Green said he already has started spraying weeds around his berry plants at Markham.
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