Local farmers are bracing for winter weather expected to hit Friday night, and early growth of peaches and apples has them worried.
As Jeff Flamm of Flamm Orchards said, the crops are "pretty far advanced."
Flamm Orchards grows a variety of produce including vegetables and fruits such as peaches, apples and strawberries. The unusually warm winter this season in Southern Illinois has caused some fruits to begin the process of blooming.
Both Flamm and Wayne Sirles of Rendleman Orchards said their peaches are two – maybe three – weeks earlier than average. In 25 years of working at Rendleman farms, Sirles said he has never seen development this early.
The State's Climatologist Office reported statewide above-average temperatures at 40.1 degrees last month, and the office is expecting the first half of March to be warmer than usual as well.
That, however, will not be the case Friday night as a winter freeze warning is set to take effect at 10 p.m. The region is likely to see snow Saturday, and the sudden shift in weather could be detrimental to the crops.
"It's sort of like when we walk out of our house that's a comfortable 70 degrees," Sirles said, "and we get slammed really quick by very, very cold temperatures."
According to Sirles, a couple of factors may be able to help crops survive even in the cold.
"We may have some cloudy conditions, which might be a little more conducive to temperatures that are not as cold," Sirles said. "The clear nights are not our friend during this time."
He also said wind may help keep the crops alive, but his main concern is the rapid shift from warm weather to freezing temperatures – and the possibility it may become warm just as quickly.
"It's a little harder on the fruit buds if you have a really cold night, and then – all of a sudden – the next day you're jumping back up," he said. "They don't have time to acclimate, and they don't have time to come out of that situation where a lot of cells can maybe come out of the freezing temperatures and still remain firm and viable."
A week ago, the temperature at Flamm Orchards was 28 degrees in the morning. Flamm said the crops withstood the cold, but as they grow, that same temperature could cause serious damage.
Though crops may be growing unusually early, this won't be the first time some farmers have been worried their crops may be destroyed by the cold. In 2007, Flamm Orchards lost its entire supply of apples and peaches.
"It got down to 19 degrees on the first weekend of April that year," Flamm said, "and it killed everything."
The orchard was still able to sell strawberries and vegetables that year, but it was only open for a fragmented season with a decreased workforce.
"When you lose basically half of what you do over the course of a year," Flamm said. "You don't need near as many employees... It's tough."
If the fruit survives this weekend, farmers will still have to wait another five weeks until the concern for another frost dissipates, as the second week of April is generally considered the cut-off date for expecting winter weather.
"If it warms up and stays warm, we're fine," Flamm said, "but we've got probably another four to six weeks of potentially having a cold spell or a little bit of some freezing temperatures. There's really not much we can do about it. We just have to hope for the best here."