Johnston County crops dodge cold bullet

sgilman@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2014 

Cold weather Tuesday and Wednesday nights did not put Johnston County crops in grave danger, farm officials said.

The overnight temperature those days dropped to 30 degrees, low enough to kill crops in some growth stages. But tobacco, wheat, and strawberries were mostly out of danger.

“We have a lot of tobacco to transplant, and it is sensitive,” said Bryant Spivey, director of the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service. “If it was to freeze, that would be a problem for it.”

But Spivey knew of only one farmer poised to transplant his crop and said the farmer would likely not transplant because of the forecast.

Tobacco farmers get a head start on the summer growing season by starting tobacco seeds inside warm greenhouses in the middle of February. They transplant the tiny plants to the field when the weather starts to warm, Spivey said.

“You do it to gain time,” he said.

Strawberries also faced danger midweek, but growers can take steps to protect the plants’ blossoms, said Extension agent Amie Newsome.

“There is a high risk of ice crystals forming and killing the blooms,” she said.

Homeowners who grow strawberries can cover their patches with burlap or flannel bed sheets but not plastic, Newsome said.

“Try to avoid plastic, because if you don’t get that plastic off when it starts warming up, then you can burn your plants,” Newsome said.

Commercial strawberry growers may use row covers or irrigation. Irrigation helps keep the plants warm because as the water freezes, it actually gives off heat, Newsome said. “And it only works if the temperature of the plant remains at or near 32 (degrees),” she said. “So if we get really, really cold, irrigation may not work. But we’re not supposed to be getting anywhere near cold enough where irrigation wouldn’t work.”

Wheat is in no danger for at least a couple of weeks, said Extension agent Tim Britton. That’s because this year’s wheat is too young to be vulnerable to the cold.

“We’re probably about three weeks away from getting into the danger zone on most of our wheat crop,” Britton said.

On the Feekes scale of cereal development, wheat is a 1 when it peeps out of the ground and an 11 when it is ready for harvest. A freeze can kill it at 10.3 or 10.5, but Britton said most of the wheat he has seen in farmers’ fields is at 8 or 9.

“When it flowers, which is around 10.5, that’s when it can freeze, because there’s so much moisture in there,” Britton said.

By May, freezes have mostly ended but can take place, Britton said. “Really hardly ever do you get 30, 32 (degrees), but it happens; just like everything else, it happens,” he said. “Farming’s a gamble. It’s a chance you take when you put it in the ground.”

For more information about crops, call the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Office at 919-989-5380.

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