SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Temperatures plunged on the East Coast early this week, and snow and sleet replaced a balmy early spring. Children may have appreciated the snow day, but a return to wintry conditions after spring appears to have sprung is not good news for many farmers. Peter Oudemans is a plant pathologist at Rutgers who spends his waking hours at a cranberry and blueberry research station in New Jersey. Dr. Oudemans joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia.
Thanks so much for being with us.
PETER OUDEMANS: It's a pleasure to be here, Scott.
SIMON: How bad were the losses this week?
OUDEMANS: It's really hard to say how bad the losses were this week. It takes a little bit of time for that to express. But any of the buds that had been developed that maybe flowers had formed - a lot of those are dead and gone. People will even notice - in their backyards, they might have seen forsythias blooming, and those are all dead. Their hyacinths are dead. And it's the same thing for blueberries, peaches, cherries, apricots, nectarines. So it's hard to tell right now, but I think that the early varieties have probably suffered significant losses.
SIMON: What happens to a cranberry or blueberry farmer when a frost hits? How much of their crop do they stand to lose? What does that mean to them?
OUDEMANS: So blueberries, cranberries, grapes, peaches, you know, all of our good New Jersey crops - the fruit comes from a flower of course. And if that flower is destroyed, you don't get a fruit. And in these kind of climates, you can lose a lot of flowers. We've seen losses in the past few years as much as 30 or 40 percent of the blueberry crop. Early peaches, you can lose a hundred percent.
SIMON: Explain to us this cycle of plants opening then getting chilled and then dying.
OUDEMANS: Sure. So plants in the fall will start to go dormant because the day length gets shorter, and the temperatures start to go down. In that process, the plants become cold hardy, so they're able to tolerate those cold winter nights and temperatures. As the daylight starts to increase and temperatures start to go up, they go through a process that's called deacclimation. And that involves the plants starting to grow, the buds swelling, but they also become more temperature intolerant. So as the temperatures drop, they can be killed.
SIMON: So when they begin to bud, the plants are at their most vulnerable?
OUDEMANS: Yes. As they go from bud break through bloom, they're very vulnerable. And then right at the point of fruit set, where the flowers get pollinated and the fruit start to form, they're at their most sensitive.
SIMON: Any advice you can give people who garden at home or on their balcony?
OUDEMANS: Well, there's a few things that people can do. One of the problems that I've seen most commonly is that we're trying to grow crops or grow plants that are not adapted to this area. So if they're more southern or more tropical, subtropical, they're going to break out much more quickly, so they have a shorter chilling requirement. They're going to go through that deacclimation process very quickly, and they're going to reach that vulnerable state very easily. So choose plants that are native to your area.
SIMON: Dr. Peter Oudemans of Rutgers, thanks so much for being with us.
OUDEMANS: It's been a real pleasure, Scott. Thank you very much.
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