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'Killing freeze' forecast for state's northwest

Fruit farmers advised to cover or water down tender blooms by Bill Bowden | April 21, 2021 at 7:11 a.m.
FILE — Icicles hang from street signs when temperatures dipped below freezing in this Feb. 4, 2014 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN)

Forecasters warned that a cold front could cause a "killing freeze" in Fayetteville early today.

Bill Reagan said Tuesday that he was going to be up all night spraying water on his 11,000 blueberry plants.

"Lots of coffee tonight," he said as a heavy snow fell but didn't stick.

Reagan said he had covered the 23,000 strawberry plants at Reagan Family Farms in Fayetteville, and the irrigation system would bathe them from underground all night with water that's 55 to 60 degrees.

"We're going to have a good water bill," he said, "but it's going to be worth it we hope."

After a high temperature around 70 degrees on Monday, the low was expected to be 24 in Fayetteville this morning, said David Jankowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tulsa.

He said that would set a record. The previous record late date for a killing freeze (24 degrees) in Fayetteville was April 16 in 1953 and 2018.

Since 1949, the average day for the last killing freeze in Fayetteville has been March 20, according to the weather service.

The weather service differentiates between a frost/light freeze at 32 degrees, a hard freeze at 28 degrees and a killing freeze at 24 degrees.

Berni Kurz said the temperature at which cold weather can kill a fruit, bloom or plant varies. He's the extension educator for consumer horticulture with the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division's Cooperative Extension Service.

"Many crops can handle a light frost, that's 32ish," said Kurz. "Many fruit start to lose life when it gets to 28. Blueberries are in heavy bloom now. The flower is more subject to freeze than the fruit that's already hanging on there."

Spraying blueberries with water protects them because freezing water releases heat, said Kurz. But a grower would have to spray them all night long until the temperature rises above 32 degrees the next day, he said.

The frigid cold that engulfed much of Arkansas on Tuesday was part of a front that was moving across the midsection of the country.

"Late season snow event continues to spread eastward across the Ozarks into the Ohio Valley as a developing area of low pressure is forecast to race along the Alleghenies into the Northeast later today into tomorrow morning," the National Weather Service said late Tuesday.

Unseasonably cold air was following in the wake of the developing storm system.

"Freeze watches and warnings extend continuously from north-central Michigan into central Texas," according to the weather service. "Numerous daily record low temperatures are forecast to be tied or broken on Wednesday morning as temperatures dip to below freezing, around 20-25 degrees below average for late April."

A widespread freeze is expected across western Arkansas this morning in the wake of the cold front, according to the weather service in Tulsa.

"Parts of Northwest Arkansas may see a killing freeze with temperatures dropping as low as 24 degrees, while lows in the 27 to 32 range will be common elsewhere," according to the forecast. "Any tender vegetation should be protected or brought indoors."

Highs should reach the mid-50s today in Northwest Arkansas, then drop back down to about 33 degrees tonight.

For Little Rock, the low Tuesday was forecast to be 33 degrees, followed by a high of 61 today and a low of 40 tonight.

Most row crops would be safe, said Ryan McGeeney, a spokesman for the Agriculture Division.

"We anticipate the temperatures having relatively little impact on row crops, most of which are only now being planted, beyond possibly delaying planting for a day or two," McGeeney said in an email. "The exception is winter wheat, which is typically planted in the waning months of the calendar year, and is now in the 'boot' or 'heading' stage of development. Wheat at this stage is vulnerable to damage if temperatures remain in the mid-20s for more than two hours."

Amanda McWhirt, extension horticulture crop specialist for the Agriculture Division, said in a news release that the freeze could be a problem for fruit crops, particularly in the northern tier of Arkansas counties.

"Blackberries and blueberries are blooming and setting fruit," she said. "Strawberries have a few blooms, but are mostly setting fruit and are starting to be harvested."

Many Arkansas peach blooms were killed by a freeze in mid-February that sent temperatures to record lows, she said.

Those that survived, McWhirt said, now have small fruit and are just past "shuck split," when the fruit's dead flower shuck falls off, according to the release.

"Blooms are usually the most cold-sensitive and are damaged for the most part just below freezing, at 27-30 degrees Fahrenheit," she said. "Small fruits can also be damaged once the temperatures get to 26-28 degrees."

McWhirt said strawberry growers should cover their plants with for protection.

"Other fruit growers may try burning hay or other ways to add warm air around the plants," she said. "Small warm-season vegetable transplants or seedlings, such as tomato, pepper, corn, etc., should be covered by Tuesday afternoon with upside-down buckets or light blankets."

"Young transplants can be set back or stunted from growing for several weeks by temperatures in the low 30s, and will be killed below freezing," said McWhirt.

Reagan said he doesn't have enough fabric to cover all his blueberry bushes.

"We'll go up and down the roads tonight broadcasting over the fields," he said of the water spraying.

By Saturday, the high is projected to be 70 degrees in Little Rock and 65 in Fayetteville.

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