There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Castle Hayne in New Hanover County.
The weather has been a hot topic of discussion this winter. Snow, sleet, freezing rain mixed with days of unseasonably high temperatures have had people reaching for their coats one day and leaving them home a day or two later.
Suffice it to say, a good many people in North Carolina are ready for spring. That is probably especially true for strawberry and blueberry growers whose crops are particularly susceptible to spring frosts. The 110-acre Horticultural Crops Research Station counts blueberry and strawberry research among its work. In fact, it has one of the top blueberry breeding programs in the country.
Like many berry growers, the weather has been on the minds of station staff recently as temperatures have dipped near freezing — a significant problem for blooms.
“We have frost-protected the strawberries twice already, and we are watching temperatures closely in case we have to do something with the blueberries, too,” said John Garner, interim research operations manager at the station.
The strawberries are not bearing fruit yet, but the frost protection is for the blooms that will lead to berries. It is a critical time for the strawberries, Garner said. Blueberries are a little farther behind in terms of bloom production when misting the plants will be necessary in extremely cold conditions. But Garner knows warmer temps will soon trigger production.
Whenever temperatures are predicted to be at, near or below freezing, the station’s staff gets busy preparing to work through the night, much like the roads crews that spread salt, sand or brine on the roads to keep them passable.
When temperatures in the fields reach 37 degrees, station workers are notified. After donning rain suits and boots, the crew readies to turn on the water and begin spraying at 34 degrees, Garner said. But the work doesn’t stop when the sprinklers begin misting the plants. Once the water is turned on, staff will ride around the fields looking for sprinklers not working or other signs of problems.
“It would be nice if the sprinklers and pipes would work right all night long, but the sprinklers can get clogged or you can get trash in the line and they will stop working,” Garner said. “If they are not spraying, they’re not doing their job.”
Working to repair clogged sprinklers or irrigation lines in freezing temperatures and with water flying around is the reason staff members need the rain suits.
When forecasters are calling for freezing temperatures, this same scene is playing out in individual fields across the state. Some growers will use row covers to help protect strawberry plants to certain temperatures, but spraying could be necessary depending on the temperatures and wind chill, Garner said.
“In a perfect world, I hope we don’t get any more frost, but we know it’s not a perfect world,” Garner said.
Depending on the weather, strawberry season runs mid-April through June, and blueberry season follows mid-May through July.
The Horticultural Crops Research Station was established in 1947 and conducts research on muscadine grapes, vegetables and ornamental plants in addition to its blueberry and strawberry work. For more than 50 years, the station has been collecting weather data around the clock for the National Weather Service and the N.C. State Climate Office. The station has five employees.