Peaches nipped in the bud

Friday, April 20, 2007
Photos by Clint Confehr Bill Forgie displays one of the peach tree branches with fruit buds spoiled by the freeze April 7.

Bill Forgie's peach and sweet cherry tree orchard won't have fruit available for picking this summer because of this spring's overnight freeze nearly two weeks ago.

"I used about 800-900 gallons of propane on Saturday night, April 7," Bill Forgie said, estimating that cost him more than $1,600. The heat could only increase the temperature from 20 to 27 degrees.

The Forgies' orchard on Collier Road in southwest Marshall County has been offering "pick your own" peaches and cherries for nine summers. Not this year as the propane heaters were no match for Jack Frost.

"We don't heat the whole orchard because we we have the orchard on a hill," he said. "The higher elevation doesn't freeze as easy" because hot air rises.

"We found crystallized ice inside each peach where it had frozen," Forgie said as he broke open one of the peaches that was "the size of your baby finger, but we lost them all.

"Nearly 100 baskets are picked everyday by the farm ... or 20 percent of the harvest with 80 percent picked by customers," he said.

Forgie has a full-time job at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, so he's not wiped out, but he's had two farm hands working through the winter pruning the trees and he'd have five more working during the summer.

On Wednesday, members of Tennessee's delegation to Congress asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to issue an agriculture disaster declaration for all 95 Tennessee counties after what they called a "devastating" crop freeze.

Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker said it's too early to know the exact extent of the damage, but it was clear to them there had been extensive damage.

"It's important to get the administrative process rolling so that farmers can be compensated in a timely way," Alexander said in a prepared release.

The delegation endorsed Gov. Phil Bredesen's request for a federal disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which would allow farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans that could help them manage crop losses and plan for next year.

"The deep freeze and record low temperatures have obviously produced heavy losses for Tennessee's farmers, especially for our fruit crops and winter wheat," Bredesen said.

"The early spring warm up followed by extremely low temperatures has really created an unusual circumstance for our farmers," the governor said.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens said it could be weeks before the state has a clear picture and can put an estimate on the losses.

Forgie had gone to the USDA office this week and planned to return for a scheduled appointment.

His orchard was planted in 1994 and "This is the first problem," Forgie said.

Now, he has about 1,500 fruit trees, he said. The sweet cherries are normally suitable for pies or eaten with ice cream.

Forgie has his trees pruned so they're low enough for his visitors to pick their own fruit, he said. That work continues as the trees will probably have a good crop in the summer of 2008.

Some of his trees can grow to 30 feet tall, but he keeps them at about 14 feet. That reflects quite a growth rate since he received the trees for his orchard by way of UPS deliveries. When he started, Forgie's trees were about three feet tall.