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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/WILLIAM MOORE

Thomas Post, vineyard manager for Post Vineyards and Winery, checks on grapes Tuesday outside Altus.

Farmers fret over dry weather

Heat helps some fruits, but prolonged hot spells a worry

Vineyard manager Thomas Post was looking forward to the Arkansas drought, when the hot, dry weather intensifies the flavor of his grapes. But as temperatures climbed past 100, Post began to worry he was getting too much of a good thing. This is an exceptional heat, said Post, who grows 100 acres of grapes at Post Vineyards and Winery in Altus. The grapes are under stress and no longer actively growing. That puts us in a dangerous spot. Added to that danger is that heavy rains could cause

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the grapes to burst, Post said. After keeping them watered with irrigation, if we get 3 to 6 inches, the rain will burst a lot of the berries, he said. The next three weeks will tell the story. Fruit farmers across the state estimate their crops will be 20 percent to 40 percent smaller by weight this

year compared with 2010. But its difficult to determine how much of that is due to the drought. The wetterthan-normal spring delayed growth about two weeks for most fruit, and hailstorms tore holes in larger fruit, such as peaches. And the extreme heat could hurt this years crop even more. Most of the state is abnormally dry, and areas of west and south Arkansas are experiencing moderate drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The drought is extreme at the Louisiana border.

Western portions of Arkansas have seen dramatically less rain compared with last year, said National Weather Service hydrologist Tabitha Clark. From June 1 to July 16, 2010, Fayetteville had 11.78 inches of rain but only 1.56 inches for that period this year. Most of the states drought is likely to persist or intensify, according to a July 7 report by the National Weather Service. Fruit growers want some amount of drought because too much rain makes crops watery and less sweet, and most have irrigation systems
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if necessary. A drought year is a vintage year, said Al Wiederkehr, owner of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars in Altus, referring to the flavor of grapes. But its so dry this year weve had to bring out the big guns to irrigate. If this summers heat continues, it may be too much for the states fruit. Heat and excessive heat are two different things, said Dan Chapman, director of the University of Arkansas Fruit Research Station in Clarksville. When it gets

over 105 like this, thats excessive heat. Part of the problem is that fruits need to cool off at night and slow their metabolisms. Otherwise, they will use up the acids and sugars produced during the day. The 75-degree nights are about 10 degrees too hot for grapes, Post said. Even if irrigated sufficiently, heat can stress plants, preventing them from forming as many fruit-producing buds. Chapman said that if the weather is hot and dry through August, more plants will die and be stressed. Arkansas produced almost 5,500 tons of blueberries, grapes and peaches last

year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state also produced 16,900 tons of watermelons in 2010, the only other fruit the USDA tracks in Arkansas. The four fruit crops were worth $9.4 million. If heat-related stress causes fewer buds to form, next years crop will be affected as well. The harvest season is already over for Mary Castons blackberries in Stone County and the past month of extreme heat barely affected this years crop. But the stress this year means a lot less berries next year, Caston said. She estimated heat-related

stress will cause only one to three buds to grow on each stem, instead of the typical six. Farmers without irrigation systems have particularly small fruit. Jack Caubble, of Caubble Orchards in Wynne, said his fruit apples, peaches, plums, nectarines and pears are about three-quarters as large as they normally are. You can go three to four weeks [without rain] and your fruit wont show it, said Caubble, who doesnt irrigate his 25 acres. But weve reached that limit. Chapman has noticed the peaches at the university research station are smaller

than usual, and there are fewer of them. Quantity and size are pitiful and whats there is ugly because of the hail, he said. Its a triple whammy. Small, unattractive fruit is making its way to farmers markets across the state, but sales are normal so far. People still want peaches and theyll take their chance, said Christian Shuffield, manager of the farmers market in Argenta. The seasons so short here, so we try to enjoy them while we got them. Well eat a pretty ugly strawberry just to get that flavor. Some customers buy the damaged fruit and turn it into jam or juice, Shuffield said.

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