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Indiana fruit growers hope cold stays away after heat

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Indiana fruit growers whose trees were lured into blooming weeks ahead of normal by a March heat wave surveyed their orchards Tuesday following a night of freezing or near-freezing temperatures that threatened the trees' tender blossoms.

Growers across much of Indiana appeared to have avoided crop damage because overnight winds prevented frost from forming and lows didn't fall below 32 degrees in most areas, sparing trees that are now blooming at least three weeks ahead of normal.

The state's northeastern corner, however, saw readings drop into the upper 20s, creating worries for Gary Stroh, owner of G.W. Stroh Orchards in Angola.

Stroh said Tuesday he's certain the 28-degree low in the city about 35 miles north of Fort Wayne caused some damage to his 15 acres of apples and three acres of peaches. And he said he's dreading the possibility that a cold front could bring temperatures in the lower 20s to his farm in the weeks ahead.

"We've just got way too much time left before it should be getting warm. If it stays warm we're fine, but if it doesn't we're going to be in trouble and we're not going to be the only ones," Stroh said.

In central Indiana, Tuttle Orchards co-owner Mike Roney said his family's farm near Greenfield appeared in a good shape because its overnight lows reached only 34 degrees. He said 10 mph winds also prevented frost from forming over the 30 acres of apples he raises with his brother Tom just east of Indianapolis.

Roney and his staff set up water irrigation lines that would have protected the trees with a mist of water, but they didn't need to turn the water on because it didn't get cold enough to threaten the white and pink blossoms covering most of the farm's trees.

Yet those irrigation lines will stay in place for the coming weeks at the orchard Roney's grandfather started in 1928 in case another cold snap sends temperatures below freezing.

"The frost free date here is the 10th of May, so that means we have a long way to go to not have to worry about frost," he said.

Indiana ranked 20th in the nation in apple production in 2010, when the state's orchards produced 26 million pounds of apples, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

Peter Hirst, a professor of horticulture at Purdue University, said Indiana's fruit crops are about a month ahead of schedule because of the long stretch of 70- and 80-degree readings that covered the nation's midsection through the end of last week.

He said one Indiana fruit grower who has been raising apples and other fruits for 50 years recently told him he'd never seen such a long stretch of early spring heat.

If the weather stays warm, Hirst said the state's fruit growers could have a great year. But he said they have reason to worry about more cold snaps over the next four to six weeks because the average date of the last frost across Indiana is early May.

"Who knows what's going to happen between now and then? Right now things are looking fine but we're in a vulnerable position," he said.

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