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Warm winter weather is putting Tennessee’s fruit crops at risk, a University of Tennessee fruit specialist said Friday.

Dr. David Lockwood, professor of plant and soil science in UT’s Agricultural Extension Service, said warmer than normal temperatures are making apple and peach trees vulnerable to damage from a cold snap. Strawberries and blackberries also are at risk, he said.

“If the warm weather keeps up, the plants will continue losing cold hardiness and start blooming,” Lockwood said. “If that is followed by a cold snap with temperatures in the teens, they could be damaged.”

Lockwood said the threat to peaches is greater than to apples which, if damaged, can bloom later. Apples were the state’s top fruit crop last year, valued at $2.3 million.

Peach sales totaled approximately $1.4 million in 1998, but a February cold snap killed half of the West and Middle Tennessee crops, Lockwood said.

Peach crop values have varied from $2.9 million in 1993 to $270,000 in 1996, with the fluctuation mostly due to freeze damage, he said.

Buds already are starting to swell on peach trees, Lockwood said, and it would take several days of normal cold weather for trees to go back to a winter dormant state.

A single freeze probably would not wipe out entire crops but repeated freezes and thaws might, he said.

“We could have a cold snap and still have good yields because fruit trees produce more blossoms than they need. But if a freeze takes 90 percent of the buds and a later one takes 90 percent of what’s left, you’ve got big losses.”