Farmers Fear Warm Winter Could Harm Fruit Trees

Many New Jerseyans have enjoyed a mild winter and early spring, but some farmers are worried about their fruit trees after they bloomed four weeks earlier than usual. The fruit trees can survive freezing temperatures when dormant, but after they flower, they can die when exposed to low temperatures.

“For us that grow tree fruit — cherries, peaches, apples, pears — we are blooming exactly one month ahead of time and that puts us at great risk for spring freezes and frost prematurely,” said Win Cowgill, Rutgers Cooperative Extensive, NJ Agriculture Experiment Station.

To combat the low temperatures, the Department of Environmental Protection granted an emergency exemption Monday and Tuesday based on the National Weather Service prediction of a major freeze allowing commercial farmers to use open burning in the orchards to raise the temperature to protect the buds from freezing throughout the night. It was the first time it was needed since 2002 and a first for Adam Costello, who’s been in the business at Wightman’s Farms for 22 years. He and his team dug 400 small fire pits the orchard.

“It’s not so much the fire that kept them warm. It’s the smoke that the fires created,” Costello said. “The smoke almost creates like a cushion so the cold air can’t penetrate down into the valley.”

Costello didn’t find any frost damage on his trees, but there is still cause for concern because May 5 is considered the first frost-free date for northern New Jersey. That means the farms have more than a month to worry about the frost.

NJ Today’s Lauren Wanko reports from Harding Township.