This has been one of those winters that make central Ohio farmers wince. Extra bales of hay, scoops of grain and gallons of heating fuel are helping livestock farmers get through the worst of the weather, but local wine-grape, blackberry and peach growers have lost much of this year's crop.

February 10, 2014

This has been one of those winters that make central Ohio farmers wince.

Extra bales of hay, scoops of grain and gallons of heating fuel are helping livestock farmers get through the worst of the weather, but local wine-grape, blackberry and peach growers have lost much of this year's crop.

The losses, as well as greater fuel and transportation costs, could mean higher prices at groceries and farmers markets come spring and summer.

The good news: Food and wine markets have gone global and "competition keeps prices down," even when local farmers lose their crops, said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

Jeni and Doug Blackburn lost 75 percent of their aquaponic salad greens during the worst subzero snap at the end of January, despite equipping the greenhouse at their farm north of Marysville with two propane heaters.

"It's not a huge loss, but with the price of propane almost tripling, that lost income is causing an issue," said Mrs. Blackburn, co-owner of Fresh Harvest Farm.

There's no telling yet the value of the crops lost to the polar weather. Laboratories are analyzing grapevines, blackberry canes and strawberry plants for damage - and the winter's not over.

For wine-grape growers, the loss likely will be "multiple millions of dollars, for sure," Winchell said. "The wineries will take a huge financial hit." But consumers likely will see very little difference because of the quality and size of grape harvests in recent years, she said.

Ohio's peach crop was worth $7.7 million in 2012, the latest year for which the U.S. Agriculture Department published its "Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts" report, which was suspended last year because of budget sequestration.

Although Ohio's blackberry production is growing, it isn't big enough to be measured by the USDA, said Cheryl Turner, state statistician at the agency's National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Reynoldsburg.

Columbus temperatures have dipped below zero on six days since the beginning of the year, the National Weather Service office in Wilmington said. They fell to 2 degrees or lower on three consecutive other days, and more single-digit temperatures are expected this week.

The late-January descent to 11 below zero (some local farmers measured temperatures closer to 20 below) killed most of this season's European grapes used to make wine, said Gary Gao, an Ohio State University Extension specialist and associate professor of small-fruit crops.

"The viniferous or European grape varieties have probably sustained 90 to 100 percent injury to their primary buds," said Gao, who is planning a winter injury workshop for small-fruit growers at OSU's South Centers in Piketon on March 4.

Wine grapes hybridized from American and European varieties, such as Cayuga, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, are hardier and might have "50 to 80 percent bud injuries, depending on the location," Gao said.

The frigid weather has even killed some grapevines, Winchell said. Surviving vines could produce a partial crop from their secondary buds, she said.

Blackberry bushes, especially the thornless type, likely "have sustained 60 to 80 percent injuries," but the region's raspberry bushes likely fared better, Gao said. And blueberry bushes are "pretty hardy."

Strawberries, which usually are protected by a layer of straw or other material, may eventually show some damage, said Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University Extension educator in southern Ohio.

Brett Rhoads, a fruit and vegetable grower near Circleville, invested in an expensive trellis system designed to protect his 22 acres of blackberries from below-zero temperatures. So far, tests show few signs of damage to his blackberry canes.

But Rhoads expects to lose most of his 6 acres of peaches. He isn't sure about his 6.5 acres of strawberries, which are protected with row blankets.

"We just haven't seen a winter like this for some years," he said.

Mitch Lynd, owner of Lynd Fruit Farm near Pataskala, also likely lost most of the fruit on his 3,000 peach trees when temperatures fell well below zero.

"Peaches and nectarines, those darn things, the flower buds can only stand about minus 6 or so," said Lynd, a sixth-generation orchard grower best known for apples, "which can stand about minus 40 degrees without any injury."

Many farmers have installed unheated greenhouse-like structures called high tunnels to grow cold-hardy crops during recent mild winters, but they have lost most of their crops this year, OSU's Bergefurd said.

Dick Jensen said the spinach and kale in the high tunnel at his Flying J Wellness Farm near Johnstown has stopped growing.

"Last year, we had beautiful spinach, kale and arugula all winter," Jensen said. "This year, everything pretty much died."

He has been storing his skid loader in a heated greenhouse to keep it warm enough to start. He uses the tractor-like loader to transport large bales of hay to feed his 83 grass-fed Hereford cattle, which spend the winter outside.

Thawing frozen water fountains has become a daily job for Mike Videkovich, co-owner of his family's Noecker Farms near Ashville in Pickaway County. Videkovich has built windbreaks and provided bedding for his 200 Angus cattle and their calves.

Frozen water troughs also have been a problem for Stacey Atherton, who runs her family's dairy farm near Newark in Licking County.

"We spend half the morning thawing out the waters," said Atherton, whose Shipley Farms milks about 380 Holstein and Jersey cows and feeds 70 or so heifers. Low temperatures have cut the farm's milk production.

"We were down on milk quite a bit, two pounds per cow," Atherton said, making for "1,000 pounds' difference from what we normally ship in a day."