Frost not a thrill for Nacogdoches' blueberry hill

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - Experts advise the use of frost drop cloths to protect fragile plants in these cold temperatures.

The practice is beneficial, unless you have 68 acres of blueberry bushes to protect. As East Texas News found out, local blueberry growers are working hard this week to protect a multi-million dollar crop from freeze damage.

At Mill Creek Farm in Nacogdoches County, blueberry buds are just a few weeks away from turning into fruit.

Mary Boutwell, the office manager for Mill Creek Farm, said this part of the blueberry plants' growth is a "very critical stage - probably the most critical stage."

"This is not good timing for this to come," Boutwell said.

Boutwell was about the only one awake Monday morning. Blueberry managers and crews slept in. They spent last night until just past sunrise Monday in the fields overseeing the frost protection of thousands of bushes.

Pointing to a photograph, Boutwell said, "This is an aerial view, and each one of these is a sprinkler."

They're turned on just prior to freezing temperatures. Cade Vandyke, a frost protection crew member, has the next shift, whenever it begins.

"It could even be four o'clock in the morning," Vandyke said. "It's just you have to wait around and wait around for the temperatures. It's just really unpredictable."

The timing is critical. Sprinklers are turned on just prior to freezing. About 3,000 gallons of water per minute are used to build ice coats around the tender buds.

"The ice actually insulates them keeping them from getting any colder than 32," Boutwell said. "The earlier stages you can get down to 25 or 28 degrees, but the stage the blooms are in right now it's 30 degrees."

Another factor important in the protection of the blueberry harvest during a cold snap is the wind. If it's too windy tonight it could blow the water away from the blueberry bushes.

Right now, workers are confident the extra measures they're taking will assure a substantial crop for this summer.

Mill Creek Farms sells up to 500,000 pounds to a broker who supplies grocery stores all over Texas. The only direct-to-public sale comes the second weekend in June during the Nacogdoches Blueberry Festival.

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