Region 8 farmer hopes freezing temperatures don't destroy peach crop

By Josh Harvison - bio | email

LEACHVILLE, AR (KAIT) - With temperatures across the Region 8 viewing area projected to fall below freezing, the Swihart Peach & Pecan Orchard is preparing to save its fruit. Leon Swihart, who has been a farmer for more than 40 years, said the fight to save his crop will be a losing battle if temperatures fall too low for too long.

"About 2 years ago, we lost an entire peach crop and it even froze the leaves on the pecans and the little pecans. They re-bloomed, which no one around here knew that pecans could re-bloom. Peaches will not," said Swihart.

Swihart said he works 4 hours a day on his peaches, pecans, apples and cherries. Of the 64 acres of his pecan grove, 25 acres of peach trees are integrated within.

"If it gets below certain degrees of temperature, during bloom stage as it might possibly, then they will not have any more peaches until next year," said Swihart. "If it gets below 30 degrees or so, maybe 29 or 28, then we could lose a lot of peaches. The pecans are not bloomed yet and the cherries. The cherries are in full bloom so it would probably get them and apples. We have a few apples. The ones that are closed would make it but the ones that are open wouldn't stand the 29 degrees or so."

Swihart said if the temperature Monday night dips below 29 degrees, then he'll lose about half his yield; however, if the temperature goes even lower, he could lose everything.

"I'm concerned for our friends in the Fayetteville area. If it got 29 in Leachville they would have a serious problem because they're temperature is usually 2 or 3 degrees cooler than here," said Swihart.

According to Swihart, there are only a few things a fruit farmer can do to protect his crop, but with peaches, the income generated isn't enough to offset the input cost.

"If a guy was rich and the peach business was profitable, extremely profitable, you could put up some wind machines that looked like big airplane motors," said Swihart. "You could put on top of towers about 30 foot tall, you're talking about 30-40-thousand dollars per tower. You'd need one every ten acres and you'd only have to use them for 2 or 3 hours."

Swihart said when he was in college, he read an article on protecting plants from freezing temperatures. According to the article, farmers could use water from underground to warm the plants 1 or 2 degrees. He said his father tried that on peaches one year.

"The icicles got 6 feet long on this peach tree on the ditch pump and it even froze half the leaves off the tree but the ones we didn't experiment with had a perfect crop," said Swihart.

Swihart's orchard sells to local grocery stores and fruit stands across Region 8. He used to sell his product to stores in St. Louis and Memphis by the trailer load.

Swihart said he's tried finding ways to keep crops protected from the cold.

"I have friends that have used helicopters but it got so drastically cold for 3 nights in a row that they weren't successful in that effort," said Swihart. "I'm hoping that we'll miss the weather two degrees and it'll be 2 degrees warmer than everybody anticipates, and we'll all have crops of fruit in Arkansas."

According to Swihart, peach, cherry and apple trees are most vulnerable in the early morning hours, but it only takes 30 minutes to knock out an entire year's worth of crop.

"The best thing is to wish for the good Lord to put a wind storm on you about ten miles an hour so the wind won't settle out close to the ground and freeze all your product," said Swihart.

Swihart said when his peach trees die, he'll plant more pecan trees, which can yield more product and is more reliable.

"Our plans are, as the peach trees die and get old, the pecans will take over," said Swihart.

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