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Cold weather affecting West Virginia orchards

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Trees in area orchards are blooming, but freezing temperatures are putting local farmers at risk to losing their crops.

Bill Bennett, executive director for the USDA Berkeley County Farm Service Agency, said Thursday he has been keeping an eye on the weather and talking to local farmers to see how they are doing.

“It was 22 degrees at one point yesterday,” Bennett said. “There are chances for very big damage and for this weather to be devastating. I talked to one local farmer who spent 21 hours trying to save his crop, but they don’t know the extent of the damage yet,” Bennett added.

Looking ahead into the weekend, Chris Strong, meteorologist for the National Weather Service said Saturday night into early Sunday morning will be the coldest.

Strong said the temperature will be in the low 20s late Saturday night into early Sunday morning throughout the region and the temperature in Martinsburg will be approximately 25 degrees.

The low tonight will be about 37 degrees with a slight chance of rain and snow into early Saturday morning. Sunday it will be in the mid 30s.

Strong said the low temperatures are due to cold air coming down from central Canada.

Greg Butler of Butler’s Farm Market off Dry Run Road near Martinsburg said he and his staff have been working diligently to try to prevent the most damage they can.

“We’ve done a lot to prepare. We have these machines called frost dragons that run off of propane. They are heaters, basically and you run them through the orchard and it pumps out heat about 220 degrees. Then, we also rented two helicopters that came in from Frederick and flew for us,” Butler said.

Butler said the helicopters works to help surround the trees with hot air.

“If you have ever seen a chimney when someone is burning a fire and the smoke rises and then it levels off, that’s called an inversion layer and that’s actually where the warm air is aloft and sometimes early in the morning where there is no wind going you get a real good inversion layer and sometimes it can be 10 to 15 degree difference in temperatures up there. So we fly helicopters right around that area and it pulls the warm air down and helps to keep things from freezing,” Butler said.

Butler said since the orchard is also pumping out hot air from the heaters on the ground the helicopters also help to keep the hot air from rising and helps it circulate. He also said they put tarps of plastic down over the top of the strawberries and other ground crops to help hold warmer air in as well.

Butler’s farm has about 250 acres of apples, 80 to 100 acres of peaches, two acres of strawberries and many other acres of fruits and vegetables.

Although Butler said it is hard to evaluate the amount of damage done up until this point, damage from the cold temperatures are all dependent on what stage the fruits are at.

Butler said each specific type of fruit blooms and grows at different stages. For example, the peaches and apples that haven’t completely bloomed yet are more likely to survive the colder temperatures because the buds are still closed.

“The tighter the blooms are the more they can withstand cooler temperatures. But if a bloom is more spread apart and farther along it’s less likely to be able to survive,” Butler said.

This has led to some peach and apples tree blooms dying this past week, while others are unharmed.

Another factor that comes into play is the amount of blooms that survive on a tree. For instance, Butler said for a peach tree, they only need 10 percent of the peaches to bloom on trees to have a good crop.

This is because there are so many blooms on one branch anyway, that farm hands go through and prune the trees regularly in order for the tree to properly produce the fruit and have the room to grow, Butler said.

Butler said dealing with freezing temperatures is nothing new.

“We obviously can’t predict the weather, but it is a part of being a farmer and we do budget for these kinds of things. We will mostly likely be dealing with cold temperatures until mid-May,” Butler said.

Strong said by the start of the work week the temperatures will start to return to normal for this time of year. The temperatures in the region for Monday and Tuesday will be in the 60s and on Wednesday it will be in the upper 50s.

-Staff Writer Katiann Marshall can be reach at 304-263-8931, ext. 182 or at

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