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Cold snap gets a frosty reception from farmers fighting to save crops

ABC Business logoABC Business 11/06/2020 By Jessica Schremmer and Cherie von Hörchner
a chain link fence: Farmers across the country have battled frozen farms and paddocks over the past week. (Supplied: Christina Martini) © Provided by ABC Business Farmers across the country have battled frozen farms and paddocks over the past week. (Supplied: Christina Martini)

With temperatures plunging across many regions of Australia farmers have been forced to take radical action in a bid to save crops, but some are already badly damaged.

Growers in South Australia's Riverland have seen temperatures drop to -5 degrees Celsius at Sunlands, about 200 kilometres north-east of Adelaide, with the Bureau of Meteorology having recorded the state's coldest temperature at -5.8 degrees Celsius in Gluepot.

Each year, frosts destroy millions of dollars worth of crops in Australia.

It forms when the dewpoint temperature has dropped below zero and the air is condensed to form ice crystals, which then land on a surface.

Citrus growers turn to molasses

Farmers in frost-affected areas have come up with creative strategies to protect their crops using everything from fans, to water and to molasses.

Sunlands citrus grower Mark Doecke said the consecutive cold nights had damaged some of his citrus fruit.

"It depends on the variety, sometimes the skin gets damaged on later varieties like late mandarins or navel oranges and sometimes the internal quality gets damaged," Mr Doecke said.

Fellow Sunlands citrus grower Peter Walker said his young citrus trees had been hit the hardest.

"They don't have a lot of canopy ... it's like a burn, it ruptures the sap in the young shoots and they just look like they have been burned," Mr Walker said.

To protect their trees and fruit from freezing, the Riverland growers spray their crops with a molasses magnesium-sulphur mixture.

Mr Doecke used a mixture to coat the fruit to give the trees more energy.

"It helps maintain skin quality because the molasses is pure sugar and it doesn't freeze as easily."

Avocados drop, roses rot

Meanwhile, Riverland avocado growers are on edge, after severe frost events last year killed most of the fruit's flower buds.

Waikerie grower Justin Loffler said the region's production forecast for this year was already only a quarter of its usual production volume.

"The first thing on avocado trees that gets affected around the -2 degree mark is we start to see flower buds getting killed," Mr Loffler said.

"But the damage varies from burning leaves to even freezing stems ... when it freezes the stems of that fruit will fall on the ground."

To prevent further crop losses Mr Loffler is out most nights, running warm water under the tree systems to keep temperatures up.

"Putting out warmer water sees the warmth go through the trees... if I can get a couple of degrees up to 0 degrees, then I am limiting the damage on the trees."

Besides the impact on tree crops, the cold temperatures also left rose and vegetables growers bearing the brunt.

While roses are now shutting down for winter, the frost still had impacts on flowers in blossom, according to Ruston Roses garden manager Susan Peterson.

"It actually freezes them up to a metre and a half to two metres off the ground and when they thaw out they go rotten," she said.

Hobby gardeners in Victoria's Gippsland have also woken up to their vegies completely frozen.

Marlene Brennan, from Longford, said her husband's veggie patch had somehow recovered.

"Everything was frozen, I thought it was all going to die but it all bounced back again nicely, the peas, the broad beans," she said.

Frost fans fire up

On a farm in Victoria's north-west, mobile frost fans designed to blow warm air towards crops are whirling to keep precious fruit safe.

Nutrano's general manager of operations Tania Chapman is watching the temperature gauge closely.

"We've made a big investment to mitigate frosts," she said.

"Across our two farms we have 28 frost fans.

"They’re all remotely managed by the phone app, so you don’t have to have 28 people running around."

If freezing temperatures become too much, Ms Chapman has other ideas up her sleeve.

"I think we've been a bit fortunate at the moment …the frost hasn't actually been dropping down to the -5, -6s for extended periods of time, we've only had -2s," she said.

"If need be in some outlying areas we can go out and light some hay bales."

Balancing mixed crops to mitigate losses

Nangiloc producer Darren Minter uses fixed drip irrigation to prevent frozen fruit.

"Haven't seen any crystallisation here," he said.

"I make sure the soils are moist because wet soil heat penetrates, so we try to keep it wet so the soil stays warmer for longer.

"For asparagus frost is good.

"It's deciduous, so it goes to sleep in winter in its natural format as a desert plant and wakes up again.

"The same for almonds. Almonds actually do have to have a chillier climate to set fruit."

Merbein flower producer John Wright is pleased that he's chosen to grow his blooms undercover.

"The flowers we grow this time of year in hot houses are quite resistant to the frost," he said.

"They need the cold to help produce beautiful blooms.

"We've had thick ice on our hot houses here, unbelievable, but it doesn't seem to affect anything."


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