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Freeze cuts into Arkansas tomatoes

Three days of freezing temperatures may have sliced Arkansas' tomato crop in half, said John Gavin, Bradley County agent for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“We didn't lose all of them,” he said. “If I had to guess, 50 percent of the crop is a total loss, with damage to the other 50 percent.”

Gavin was on the road April 10, visiting growers and evaluating the damage. “There were a lot of solemn looks,” he said. “But except for one or two, everyone said it could've been worse.”

Arkansas has about 1,000 acres of commercial tomato growth, plus countless backyard vines. Bradley has about 600 to 700 acres, with another 250 to 300 in Ashley and Drew counties. According to 2006 figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Arkansas' tomato crop was valued at $15.6 million.

The vines are predominantly large, red fresh market tomatoes, with some 50 acres of Roma tomatoes and 20 acres of grape tomatoes

Gavin warns that it will be a few days before a full assessment of the freeze damage can be made.

However, growers had time on their side.

“It's possible that about half the growers are going to have to sprout them out,” Gavin said. In doing so, growers will cut a damaged plant a couple inches above the soil or down to a solid green stem and hope a new sucker, or sprout, will erupt from the undamaged parts of the plants. Otherwise, farmers will be replanting if they can find the plants. All this work will be costly.

“The biggest problem with the freeze is that most of the damage is probably not going to show up until bloom time,” said Randy Clanton, CEO of Clanton Farms at Hermitage, Ark.. Clanton has 300 to 400 acres of tomatoes.

Growers who were replanting were having a hard time finding new plants. “There are not a lot of plants available,” he said Wednesday. “If they are, they're cost prohibitive.”

Clanton said he and his crew stayed up all Saturday night (April 7) and watched as a bank of clouds had moved in, remaining until about 4:30 a.m.

“It helped insulate the air and blanket things. It gave us a reprieve on the cold air,” he said “After that, the temperatures dropped around five degrees. If the clouds had stayed another three hours, we'd have gotten by.”

“Still, credit, where credit's due. The Lord wanted us to have some tomatoes this year,” he said. “It was that close.”

Tomato growers in other states haven't fared as well.

“I was told Tennessee was wiped out. They were calling for transplants from Georgia and Florida and can't find any,” Gavin said. “People in northern Florida were hurt too.”

The broad swath of the cold's destructive power could help buoy prices, but farmers “will be paying more to grow it. You can't win for losing.”

Unlike their counterparts in the fruit business, there isn't much Arkansas tomato growers can do to protect their crop from late spring freezes.

“Some products that are sold claim they can help protect tomatoes during a light frost,” Gavin said. “But when it's freezing, there's not a lot you can do.”

Late spring freezes aren't unusual in Arkansas. “April 10 or 15 is the average time for a late frost,” he said. “Farmers always gamble a little bit. Anytime you plant in March, you're pushing your luck.”

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