Mass. farmers brace for sudden cold
TOPSFIELD, Mass.—A stretch of abnormally mild weather set up a long, uneasy night for some Massachusetts farmers.
In the week after March temperatures cracked 80, forecasters are calling for freezing cold overnight Monday that could kill crops that began to prematurely blossom during last week's summer preview.
In Methuen, apple grower Bill Fitzgerald predicts he'll worry himself to sleep on Monday. If the temperature dips to about 21 degrees, the low end of the forecasts, his apples could be nearly wiped out.
"There's actually tremendous concern," said Fitzgerald, a fourth generation grower at Mann Orchards. "If we come out of this OK tonight, we're going to have slid by the skin of our teeth, as they say."
In Freetown, cranberry grower Dawn Allen said she and her husband, Fred, won't sleep overnight. The buds are breaking on their 27-acre bog, and there are steps they can take to be sure the cold doesn't kill them. But they have to be awake to do it.
"We're all looking at each other as growers saying, `It's going to be a really long, tough night,'" she said.
Just last Wednesday, the day after spring arrived, people shrugged off the mild winter as the temperature hit the 80s. But it's still March, and forecasters say it will feel like it again overnight Monday into early Tuesday, with blustery conditions and temperatures in the 20s.
At Mann Orchards in Methuen, the warm weather saw the apple buds grow into what Fitzgerald called "a tight cluster," the stage just before the blossom shows. Temperatures in the high 20s will mean a relatively minimal loss, but a drop to 21 degrees could devastate his apples, and there's nothing he can do but hope.
"Mother Nature's got us," he said. "She's got us, and if she wants to take us, she will, and if she wants to spare us, she will."
Cranberry growers can actually fight the frost by sprinkling water on the buds so that they become encased in ice, a process that protects the buds. But if the winds are high, the gusts can cause the ice around the plants to evaporate and damage them.
Growers are left watching the wind and temperatures, trying to decide whether to turn on the sprinklers or not.
"We won't get any sleep tonight," Allen said.
The cold didn't promise a stressful night for all Massachusetts growers.
Farmer Rich Bonanno, of Methuen's Pleasant Valley Gardens, isn't sweating the weather because, like other vegetable farmers, most of his crops aren't planted yet.
He waits until mid-April to plant lettuce or early season greens, such as kale and parsley. Perennials, such as his three acres of rhubarb, are just coming out of the ground. But rhubarb is hardy and Bonanno doesn't think the cold will have any effect.
Last week's warm weather, combined with the relatively dry ground, had some farmers seeding peas and beets, said Bonanno, also president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, an independent association. But those plants wouldn't have germinated yet and are safe from the chill, he said.
"The cold temperature is going to have no impact on it," he said.