MACHIAS, Maine — It’s a “nervous time” over at Albert Tate’s third-generation strawberry farm in Corinth. Pockets of frost hit much of Maine on Monday night, and another frost was predicted for Tuesday night. With many berry bushes and fruit trees blooming two to three weeks earlier than usual this spring, a dangerous frost could easily wipe out a harvest.
Tate and other family members were in their strawberry fields at 2 a.m. Tuesday, repairing and maintaining 20,000 feet of irrigation piping.
“The temperature was 29,” he said. “The plants are blossoming right now, at least two weeks ahead of schedule, which makes them more susceptible to frost. It would be better if the fruit had set.”
From Oxford County to the coast, farmers and orchardists are keeping a close eye on the thermometer.
Orchardists will lose 10 to 15 percent of a crop at 28 degrees Fahrenheit. At 25 degrees, 90 percent of the crop will be lost, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“Whether we have damage or not all depends on where the flowers are in their development stage,” said John Olsen of Maine-ly Apples in Dixmont. “We may not be able to tell if we’ve had damage for two or three weeks.”
It dropped to 30.5 degrees at his farm.
Conditions such as this are difficult for apple growers, Olsen said. “It’s a one-shot deal for us. It’s not like we can replant a crop.”
Mark Sheriff in St. Albans in Somerset County said he watched the temperature drop to 32 degrees overnight, admitting Tuesday morning that “I’m a nervous wreck.” He said his apple orchard appears to be all right, but his blueberries are a little more sensitive.
Nat Lindquist of Jasper Wyman and Sons in Milbridge, the world’s largest wild blueberry producer, said Washington County dodged a bullet. Temperatures remained around 36 degrees overnight Monday.
“We are more concerned for [Tuesday night],” he said. “It’s a case of sit and wait.”
But according to David Yarborough, the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension blueberry expert, there was extensive damage to blueberry fields a little farther south.
“Particularly around the Union area, in the low-lying areas, which they call ‘buckets,’ there was significant damage,” Yarborough said.
Russell Libby, a farmer and the executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association based in Unity, said, “No one has reported damage yet.”
He said Tuesday afternoon that except for a few plants that farmers were experimenting with, most of the warm weather crops, such as tomatoes, have not been planted and will not be set in the ground until Memorial Day weekend.
“The early crops are mostly able to handle the cold,” he added.
Libby did say, however, that he likely lost his entire peach crop.
“The trees were in full blossom [Monday],” he said Tuesday. “By my standards, everything is about three weeks early. The daffodils have gone by. The tulips have gone by. And those are usually blooming for Mother’s Day.”
Libby said that with Maine’s weather in recent springs not running according to usual patterns — with more rain last year and early warmth this year — the unpredictability could make greenhouses, hoop houses and other protective coverings increasingly important to use whenever possible.
Farmers across the state were expected to be pacing the floor overnight Tuesday, watching the clouds whose presence tends to hold warmth in the air, but whose absence can mean sharper cold.
“We got through [Monday] night at 29 degrees,” Michael Parsons, co-owner of Conant’s Orchard in Etna said. “I was up at 1:30 a.m. and there were clouds. I was up at 3 a.m. and there was a cloud cover. But I woke up at 4 a.m. and saw stars. That wasn’t good. And tonight could be even colder.”