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Up-and-way-down temperature wreaking havoc on orchards, vineyards, sod farms

The extreme blast of cold of Monday and Tuesday — combined with the unseasonably warm weather that preceded and is forecast to follow that blast — may be wreaking havoc with local vineyards, orchards and sod farms, and also may damage some residential lawns.

At worst, the abrupt temperature swings may end up killing young fruit trees, grapevines and portions of lawns, especially grass that was grown from seed planted in the late fall. But growers say they won’t know the extent of the damage until this spring.

Even if fruit trees and grapevines survive the winter of 2014, they may produce a smaller-than-usual crop this summer, growers said.

“I am definitely concerned about winter injury to our grapevines,” said Patricia Chalfant, viticulturist and winemaker for Caesar Creek Vineyards east of Xenia. All of the winery’s vineyards are less than a decade old, and the winery produces wines made exclusively from grapes grown in its vineyards.

Chalfant said she intends to gather shoots and buds from the vines surrounding the winery. She’ll cut the buds open to try to determine the extent of potential reduction of the yield of the 2014 vintage. She and winery owner Walter Borda have to wait until spring to determine whether the damage goes beyond crop yield to include dead vines.

In the 1980s, some Ohio wineries and grape growers went out of business after extreme cold wiped out their vineyards. Caesar Creek Vineyards planted hybrid grapes such as Frontenac and Marichal Foch, which are more resistance to cold-weather damage than the more delicate European grape varieties such as riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc. That should help minimize any problems, Chalfant said.

In southern Clark County, Jim Brandeberry, co-owner and winemaker at Brandeberry Winery, is already preparing for the possibility that he’ll have to purchase more grapes and juice from northern Ohio vineyards and elsewhere later this year to meet his winery’s demand because of potential damage or lower yields from his own vineyards.

“These temperature swings, without any snow cover, are, by my estimation, a pretty serious problem,” Brandeberry said.

Ohio tree-fruit growers face a similar prospect of hidden damage that won’t become apparent until the spring, according to Bill Dodd, president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Marketing Association.

Peach trees are the most susceptible to cold-weather damage, and apple trees also can be affected as the mercury drops to below zero, Dodd said.

The tiny buds that will become flowers, and then fruit, this spring and summer, have already formed on peach and apple trees. “If it gets cold enough, those buds can be damaged, and later, they won’t set fruit,” Dodd said.

As with grapevines, fruit trees suffer most when wide temperature swings accompany the plunge into extremely cold weather, which can freeze the roots, especially of young trees. A blanket of snow can act as an insulating, protective barrier to cold, Dodd said. In Southwest Ohio, however, weekend rain and warm temperatures had melted much of a previous snowstorm’s remnants, and the snowfall that preceded the extreme cold temperatures was less than expected.

Randy Tischer — owner of Green Velvet Sod Farms in Bellbrook — said the combination of light snow cover, extreme cold and wide temperature swings has probably damaged at least some portions of his company’s 700-acre sod farm along I-70 near I-675 near Enon.

“But the turf is dormant now, so we won’t know for sure until spring,” Tischer said.

Homeowners will face a similar waiting game to see if their lawns have been damaged. “Your yard is either going to start greening up this spring like everybody else’s, or it’s not, and there’s not anything you can do about it right now,” Tischer said.

Most at-risk is grass grown from seed that was planted in the fall of 2013 — after about the third week of September, he said.

“More mature lawns should come out of it all right,” Tischer said. “But I envision this cold weather causing some problems in turf that we haven’t seen in the last 20 years or more.”

Chalfant of Caesar Creek Vineyards was philosophical about the potential damage to her grapevines.

“This is just part of being in agriculture,” she said. “We’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

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