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New technology helps North Carolina strawberries survive freeze

Unlike other fruit crops, which were heavily damaged, North Carolina’s strawberries survived this year’s Easter freeze largely unscathed, thanks to a relatively new technology.

Many strawberry growers protected their crops with spunbonded polypropylene row covers that look like huge, white blankets, said Barclay Poling, a horticultural science professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension small fruit specialist at North Carolina State University.

These lightweight "blankets" literally float on top of the entire crop and help insulate and protect the berry plants from freezing temperatures. Row covers can be used to protect low-growing crops like strawberries and vegetable transplants, but not grapes, fruit trees and blueberries.

“The strawberry crop had been on such a wonderful track in March and early April,” Poling said.

“Everything was falling into place for a great season, including the potential for our earliest opening ever on Easter weekend.”

Unfortunately, Easter weekend was dreadfully cold, and the state's fruit growers, including strawberry producers, were confronted with the prospect of widespread damage. The Easter weekend freeze brought temperatures in the teens and low 20s as well as winds gusting in excess of 25 mph.

North Carolina apples and peaches were hard hit, with growers sustaining serious losses.

The strawberry crop was a different story. In addition to row covers, an older technology —spray irrigation — also helped protect the fragile crop from the freeze. Growers spray water on their plants to create a thin sheet of ice on the strawberries, which insulates the fruit from the damaging effects of sub-freezing air temperatures.

The use of technologies designed for low-growing crops helped the state’s strawberry growers preserve almost all the crop, with the exception of some areas of the mountains, where it was brutally cold. Some areas got down to 10 degrees F on Easter morning.

“But, the overall outlook for the 2007 strawberry crop in North Carolina is excellent.” Poling said. “Growers across eastern North Carolina, the Sandhills and Piedmont are now open to the public for picking.”

According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, North Carolina is the fourth-largest producer of strawberries in the United States, behind California, Florida and Oregon. In 2005, the total value of North Carolina strawberries was nearly $18.5 million.

The state Department of Agriculture provides a listing of strawberry growers, farmers markets and certified roadside stands at

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