Neb. Wheat Growers Worry About Cold Damage; Grapes Hit Hard

April 9, 2007

Crops on the cusp of spring bloom have been met with an arctic chill that is making Midwest growers uneasy about eventual harvests for foods all over the pyramid.

Wheat growers were studying temperature readings and crop costs to decide whether to keep their crops or switch to corn.

Meanwhile, the cold damaged grapevines at James Arthur Vineyards near Raymond in eastern Nebraska, where many buds nearing bloom have turned black and gray, said field manager Josh Rockemann.

Farmers and everyone else can expect the cold to stay through the weekend, said Kenny Roberg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Platte.

Across western and central Nebraska, temperatures were predicted to be 20 degrees below normal, with the coldest lows reaching to 5 degrees, Roberg said.

“With temperatures that cold it could very well be damaging to a lot of crops,” Roberg said.

Kimmel Orchard, near Nebraska City, already has lost nearly an acre of Asian pears and a half-acre of white peaches, and its 90 acres of apples, cherries and grapes are in still in danger, said orchard manager Erik Olson.

“If the whole Missouri Valley’s affected, it affects everybody if nobody has any apples,” Olson said. “There’s no replanting, there’s no do-overs. You only get the one drop a year.”

At James Arthur Vineyards and other vineyards in Missouri and Illinois, workers have been left waiting to see how vines will bloom.

“It may knock us down in half, it may knock us down a quarter – I just don’t know,” Rockemann said.

Winter wheat growers were aided in part by an unlikely ally – snow.

“It’s insulation,” said Dr. Drew Lyon, a dryland crops specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff.

Still, extra wheat that was planted last fall may not yield as much as originally thought, and farmers switching to corn won’t plant until next month.

Wheat plants tolerate cold weather well over the winter, but if the cold hits the wheat at the right stage of development in the spring, it can cause “blank heads” in which no grain forms.

“They’ll have to put a pencil to it and kind of figure it out as we’re able to evaluate this damage,” said Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board.

Lower stocks of wheat worldwide last fall drove up prices that held with corn, prompting Nebraska farmers to plant more winter wheat, Schaneman said.

U.S. farmers last fall planted 3.5 million more acres of winter wheat than the previous season. The Agricultural Department’s Economic Research service predicted that this season’s harvest will be huge.

The Agriculture Department forecast the average seasonal wheat price at $4.30 per bushel, matching the average price of wheat during 1996-97. The record average price was during the 1995-96 when prices soared to $4.55 per bushel.

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