Freeze threatens grapes

Thursday, April 5, 2007
Subfreezing temperatures expected the next few nights could damage budding grapevines in the area, such as this Cabernet Sauvignon variety shown by Carrie Walker at the Windy Vines vineyard near Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

An unusual weather pattern may put the squeeze on Missouri's grape growers.

Vines have budded a few weeks ahead of schedule as a result of last month's warm weather, but low temperatures in the 20s this week may mean a smaller crop.

Meteorologist Rachel Trevino with the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., said the beginning of April is 15 to 20 degrees colder than normal and that Cape Girardeau may see record lows.

Last month was the warmest March on record since 1937 for Paducah, which, according to Trevino, is probably only a degree off from Southeast Missouri temperatures. She did not have comparable data for Cape Girardeau.

"Things are growing ahead of schedule," said gardening expert Paul Schnare, who teaches a course in viticulture at Southeast Missouri State University. "It's very possible grapevines will get freeze damage."

According to Schnare, vines can be injured when the temperature drops to 28 degrees or below after budding has occurred. Temperatures Friday night may reach the low to mid-20s throughout Missouri, according to the National Weather Service.

There is not much grape growers in Missouri can do if temperatures do drop below freezing, Schnare said.

Dan Hopper of Twains Vineyard in Sikeston, Mo., said he was hoping the cold weather was done since spring began a few weeks ago. Fortunately, he said, his vines are still dormant.

Bill Mount, a member of the Missouri Grape Growers Association from Park Hills, Mo., said he's glad he waited to plant his vines this year.

"The abnormal warmth in March encouraged vines to bud out," he said. "Some growers are definitely going to see crop loss."

Grapevines produce three small buds, Mount said. If the primary bud suffers damage, the secondary bud can still produce fruit, just not as much. The third bud will ensure foliage, keeping the vine alive. But initial buds dying off would mean a light harvest this season.

Last year's harvest in Missouri yielded 8.34 million pounds of grapes, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Grapevines are designed to survive. They just may not be fruitful," Mount said. "The worst thing that could happen is we get another episode of cold weather that kills off the secondary buds."

Joannie Smith of Commerce, Mo., has been working with vines for 25 years. Co-owner of River Ridge Winery, Smith said she and her husband, Jerry, never had a situation where budding started this early. She doesn't think they'll lose any vines, but she is worried about their crop. If damage does occur, they do have stocks of wine to fall back on, she said.

Andy Walker of Cape Girardeau is in his fourth year growing grapes at Windy Vines vineyard on County Road 620.

"It will hurt the vines, but we'll live," he said.

As for noncommercial plants, flowers are also susceptible to cold damage, Schnare said, and some people have planted tomatoes and peppers too early.

335-6611, extension 137

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